Consort brings 16th century music box to life


IN A DAY WHEN PEOPLE may know about Michael Hedges (New Age singer) but not Michael Torke (classical composer), it's unlikely names like Loys Bourgeois, Claudin de Sermisy, Frabritio Caroso and Daniel Bachelar will ring any bells.

They were 16th Century French, Italian and English composer-players of songs, dance melodies, ballads and other tunes that took a giant leap in melody from the relatively staid plainchants and polyphonic religious singing of the Middle Ages.

These were fine songs to be played, sung, danced to and talked to, some outside and some in church.

The dusty notes breathed again this weekend before 150 at Peabody's Friedberg Hall where six members of The Baltimore Consort put their lutes, viols, flutes, recorder, bagpipe, cittern and voice to exquisite use in a quick 90 minutes for tired 20th Century ears.

The artists in residence at Peabody are a small Baltimore treasure, a music box come to life.

The harmonious company, dressed in black except for soprano Custer LaRue in white dress, green shoes and long dark hair, exuberantly played more than 20 melodies in "The French Muse" Friday. The most recognizable name was actually another Michael, the German Praetorius.

From the moment Chris Norman strapped himself into his little green bagpipe and led his partners into a Praetorius arrangement, "Volte," the French music and its exported lyrical cousins proceeded smoothly. Not all has changed in four centuries: the pretty melodies often dressed sad stories.

Ronn McFarlane, much recorded lute player on the Dorian label, plucked a number of solos or duets masterfully. The fast fingers elicited clean sounds from the pear-shaped Elizabethan instrument difficult to play. His solo after LaRue's beautifully sung "Une jeune fillette" was a gem of tricky fingering yielding a cascade of plaintive notes to match the words of the young girl taken from her lover to become a nun.

LaRue has a well-controlled voice that can make dark and light sounds with ease, sometimes seemingly sounding like the instruments. From the semicircle of instrument players, she sang, mainly in French, of the love for God, Psalm 137's song of exile and ugly image of infants crushed against rocks, a lost love, a pretty nymph and cuckolds.

Bagpiper Norman, pumping and squeezing the Scottish bagpipe of the 1500's, revamped from the French musette, had a merry debut especially with "The mermaid's song" and "The old maid of the mill dust." Flutes were his primary tools; he did a charming solo in "Frais et gaillart" by Giovanni Bassano.

Three other players admirably filled out the Consort, the name for an instrumental-voice group of the 16th Century. Mark Cudek played lute, bass viol and cittern, a stringed instrument associated with the Church in the 15th Century and later overtaken by the superior lute.

Mary Anne Ballard played viols, and Larry Lipkis, viols and recorders. They plucked and bowed six-stringed viols, in Italy called viola de gamba -- leg viols -- because they are held between the legs.

Its 10th season ended, the Consort said it would play a series next season at the Folger Library in Washington as well as in Baltimore. Its first compact disc, "On the Banks of Helicon: Early Music of Scotland" just showed up on the Dorian label.

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