Heraldry, the elaborate system of coats of arms that was an expression of family pride in past eras, remains as a tangible emblem of history. One possible musical counterpart, dances and songs written for and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I and her courtiers, was the focus of the Folger Consort’s first program of the season, heard on Friday night, offered in parallel to the heraldry exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Four members of the recently formed Arcadia Viols joined their colleague Robert Eisenstein to perform dance pieces for viol consort, a family of instruments at the height of its popularity in the Renaissance. Their sound was balanced and warm, with a pleasing lilt in the dances like John Dowland’s “Earl of Essex Galliard,” perhaps better known in its vocal form, “Can She Excuse My Wrongs.” They deftly handled the intricacies of more complex pieces like William Byrd’s variations on the folk song “Browning” and a fantasia by Thomas Ravenscroft.
The outstanding contributions of the evening were from Loren Ludwig on treble viol, played with impeccable intonation and cleanness of tone. An arrangement of Dowland’s “Queen’s Alman,” adapted from a densely florid keyboard version by Byrd, offered the perfect vehicle for Ludwig’s fluid fret hand. Tenor James Taylor was at his best in soft, intimate settings, especially songs accompanied only or primarily by lutenist Christopher Kendall like Dowland’s “Weep No More, Sad Fountains.” When he forced his voice into louder dynamics, the top of the range became a little shrill and nasal. Some sort of miscue between singer and instruments in the opening song, Byrd’s charming “My Mistress Had a Little Dog,” was corrected without disaster.
Downey is a freelance writer.