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Monday, July 27, 2020

Baking before the Baroque

From the Music Vault Dept.: It was good and hot at the end of July 1986, and the temperature in a small studio out in the woods on a hot day can seem oppressive. But good music-making took the edge off, as recalled in my review of a long-ago event.


HOT, HUMID FRIDAY NIGHT wasn’t a good evening for lutes and theorbos (a lute is a gourd-shaped guitar, used through the baroque era. A theorbo is a long lute with many extra strings – sort of a cross between 12-string guitar and electric bass).

"The Attributes of Music" by Anne Vallayer-Coster

At Robert Conant’s Festival of Baroque Music concert at his studio in Greenfield Center, it seemed as if there was as much tuning as there was playing and singing. There wasn’t, of course, and to sit through the tuning was a small price to pay for the splendid music making.

You’re smack In the middle of the woods out there, off Wilton Road, in a specially designed studio that seats no more than a hundred. So there is intimacy and a close association with Nature, two important characteristics of the music of three centuries ago. With the bonus of no royalty hanging around (early-music composers found their best support in the palaces) to steal all the attention.

The Ensemble Chanterelle made its fourth appearance with the festival in a program of songs and instrumental music from 17th-century Italy, France. and England. The trio comprises soprano Sally Sanford, Catherine Liddell on theorbo, and Kevin Mason alternating on theorbo and lute.

And they make it all look so easy! This is complicated music that masquerades as simple stuff only because modern ears are so accustomed to what once were innovative sounds. The best songwriters of the period gave subtle musical suggestions to complement the texts, not like the storms and streams of the Romantics.

The ensemble is successful because it not only gives a sincere reproduction of a song, but also informs it with the energy and good humor the song deserves.

Add to that Sanford’s impressive acting ability: she read an English translation of each foreign text before singing, and gave color and meaning to the thoughts and words in whatever language, in tone of voice and facial expression.

The six-part program began with a set of Italian songs, the bulk by Carlo Milanuzzi, with many songs celebrating or lamenting love in terms of trees and breezes. A set of four instrumental dances followed, by a variety of (known and anonymous) composers but arranged as a suite, for lute and theorbo alone or paired. The first half concluded with three contemplations of desire by Barbara Strozzi, the second of which, “Breathe easy, my breast ... ,” featured long, vibrato-less notes from Sanford that combined with the solo theorbo for a wonderfully eerie effect.

Four French songs – about love and lovers, of course – opened the second half, sung to one or two theorbos. Guest artist Steven Lundhal then performed a Suite in F Major by Nichola Matteis on alto recorder, with Liddell accompanying on theorbo. This is where the weather had its worst effect: the players never really got their intonation dead on together, and some uncomfortably flat recorder notes hung too often in the air.

The concluding four Henry Purcell songs brought Conant to the harpsichord and Lundhal on soprano recorder for a set that finished with a sprightly “Hark, the Echoing Air.”

There was the usual gang of program-fanners in the audience (my fourth-grade teacher insisted that fanning yourself was a waste of energy, generating more heat than it dissipated. Unless you were royalty and had some retainer to fan you, why bother?), but this elegant program made me forget all about the heat for a pleasant while.

– Schenectady Gazette, 28 July 1986

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