Affecting music for the season from Evolution Series, Folger Consort

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The Folger Consort paid a welcome return to Baltimore for a Renaissance Christmas concert at the Walters.

Yes, I know it will be tough for me on Judgment Day, but I have to confess a very modest appetite for Christmas-related, or just plain holiday-related, concerts. I can happily go several years between hearing Handel's "Messiah," for instance, even though I do admire the work.

This confession is by way of explaining the paucity of reports on seasonal performances around town. I do hope you've been attending them and cheering them all heartily.

Having gotten the disclosure out of the way, let me hasten to add that I have not avoided all exposure this year to events with a holiday hook. I took in two recent concerts that, while widely different in some ways, proved very much alike in others.

On one side the historical spectrum, the excellent Folger Consort from Washington paid a welcome visit to Baltimore after an absence of several years to present "A Renaissance Christmas" program of vocal and instrumental music, ca. 1500, at the Walters Art Museum.

On the other side, there was a program by the ever-adventurous Evolution Contemporary Music Series at An die Musik featuring David Lang's Pulitzer Prize-winning piece from 2007, "The Little Match Girl Passion," inspired by the pathos-rich Hans Christian Anderson's story about a child who freezes to death on New Year's Eve. Passions are associated with Lent; Lang has given us a very powerful variation on that genre for Christmas (or anytime, of course).

At the risk of stretching a point, I think there were intriguing connections between these programs, starting with imagery. For all of the happy Christmas talk in the texts of works featured by the Folger ensemble, there were reminders, too, of suffering and neglect.

Consider the lines from Josquin des Prez's "In te Domine speravi," for example: "I struggled in vain ... All hope is broken in the wind." Or Jacob Obrecht's "Factor orbis," which looks forward to "the day that brings light" and offers "glad tidings to the poor," but also notes that "in the midst of life we are in death."

Easy to link things like that with the evocation of that girl in Lang's profound work vainly lighting matches for warmth in the days after Christmas.

No such links were intended, of course. But they became even easier to make when comparing the purity and intricate layering of the vocal writing in the Folger's Renaissance selections with the purity and intricate layering of the vocal writing in the non-secular "Little Match Girl."

But enough of that. The main point I want to make is that both concerts offered musical and textual richness, along with what you might call spiritual reward.

In the case of the Folger Consort, Sunday's performance, which drew a big turnout to the Sculpture Court, the pleasures started with the high caliber of the performers. (This was a free event, all the more a bargain considering that the ensemble's repeats of the program through Dec. 23 at the intimate Folger Shakespeare Library are priced at $50.)

The instrumentalists -- Consort co-artistic director Robert Eisenstein (viol and recorder), Anna Marsh (winds), Christa Patton (harp, recorder, bagpipe), Mark Rimple (lute), Daniel Stillman (winds) -- offered considerable expressive nuance to go with generally impeccable technique and a great sense of rhythmic flow.

The same could be said of the warm-toned, beautifully blended vocalists -- soprano Emily Noel, tenor Aaron Sheehan, baritones Michael McCarthy and Matt Sullivan, and, when he wasn't doing lutenist duties, countertenor Rimple.

It could not always have been easy for these musicians to focus, since the space was also shared by museum-goers wandering about. Then there was the guy who slowly crossed back and forth in front of the players mid-performance to take advantage of free cider provided for the crowd. Not the best acoustic space, either, given the reverberation.

But everyone seemed to have a great time (even a glitch that required the re-start of one selection was handled with aplomb). Chalk it up to good old holiday spirit.

The mood was obviously more sober at An die Musik last week during the Evolution concert, which began with pianist Kenneth Osowski's taut, absorbing account of Lang's 2003 piece "This Was Written By Hand."  

That spare music segued neatly into "Little Match Girl," performed by soprano Crossley Hawn, alto Kristen Dubenion-Smith, tenor Luke Frels and bass Mark Duer, with Evolution founder/director Judah Adashi conducting.

The well-matched singers got deep into the intimate drama, which draws from Anderson, H.P. Paulli, Picander and St. Matthew for its libretto. Dubenion-Smith, in particular, reached a deeply eloquent level. The hypnotic, exquisitely textured score calls for the vocalists to play several percussion instruments in the otherwise a cappella work, and they did so with finesse.

The modest staging that accompanied the performance, involving the turning of small boxes with words from the text printed on them, struck me as a promising idea in need of further development.

Lang was on hand to share in the ovation from the full house. He also joined Adashi for a pre-concert conversation about "Little Match Girl" and other topics. 

It was valuable to hear Lang's insights, and to experience his extraordinary Passion in Baltimore for the second time since 2010 -- the composer noted that Adashi was among the first to program it after its premiere.

The evening reconfirmed just how valuable the decade-old Evolution Contemporary Music Series is to the city's cultural life.     

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