Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. I have discovered that despite my love of music and still relative newness to the critique business, there are a few nights or afternoons where attending some concerts have almost felt like going to my day job. Then there are those that I look forward to with great anticipation. When I learned that the Baltimore Consort was to play at Elon University on November 4, I immediately began begging and groveling to get assigned to review this unique and wonderful group. Such behavior is not a pretty thing to watch or listen to, so I was quickly granted this small request.
The Baltimore Consort was formed in 1980 primarily to perform the music of Shakespeare's time. This type of group was known as a "broken" consort, but not because they used defective instruments or were destitute. This referred to the fact that this type of ensemble employed stringed instruments as well as winds and simple percussion. This group has been a favorite of mine ever since they started releasing CDs on the outstanding Dorian label. The superb engineering of these recordings makes these outstanding musicians sound like they are playing in your living room. The only disappointment I felt as the concert date approached was that there would be only four of the six members of the group playing at Elon. I quickly got over that as the concert began.
Elon's Whitley Auditorium is one of our most charming, comfortable and acoustically warm venues, and it is always a treat to attend a recital there. Four musicians bounded onto the stage, but the program started with the lone voice of Custer LaRue. For those of you who have not heard her voice, it can be described as the essence of pure tone singing, at once simple and unadorned, yet filled with great emotion and unwavering attention to the textual meaning. She sang a long work called "Lord Ronald," an early 19th century ballad that deals with love and death, as most do. The printed programs were beautifully done with the complete texts for every work that was sung. Many times people complain of the lack of texts in concert programs, but I believe this was a case where it would have been better if they were not included. Ballads of this kind, for which LaRue is known and which she probably does better than anyone else, are an oral tradition passed down through storytelling and finally put to music. They were meant to be listened to and reading the texts detracts from the experience (plus you would not have all the rustling of programs). LaRue sings every syllable clearly with appropriate dialects and speech patterns from the origin of the ballad. There are few singers who can captivate an audience and tell a story as she does - looking at the printed words seems like an intrusion.
Lutenist Ronn McFarlane is an original member of the group who has also recorded many excellent CDs of Renaissance lute music. During the concert he also played two of his own compositions, which are predictably in a neo-Renaissance style.
Mary Anne Ballard is the brains of the outfit and researches most of the group's programming. She plays the treble and bass viols. These are instruments that are held between the knees like a cello but have frets, are tuned in fourths like a guitar (rather than fifths, like modern string instruments), and are bowed with palms facing outwards. She also played the rebec, a very small, bowed, 3-stringed instrument.
The fourth musician on stage was Mindy Rosenfeld, an original member who left for a while but is now back with the Batimoreans. She played many varieties of renaissance and baroque flutes.
A concert of this kind contains many short selections, so describing each one would be needlessly laborious. As you listen to many of these works you can easily hear the similarities between high Renaissance music, English and Scottish folk music, and the subsequent ballads of Appalachia. There were even several selections where the lutenist played an accompaniment that would have been quite at home backing up a pop singer or in an acoustic rock group.
There was an Elon connection to this concert in the program's last three songs, which are classic examples of the ballad genre. They were notated in 1939 by Fletcher Collins, an Elon College faculty member, directly from 76-year-old Mrs. J.U. Newman.
One of the pleasures of these types of groups is the great diversity of instruments and endless ways to combine them. With the absence of two members, a little of this variety was missing, but that was little to fret about. It was interesting to watch the different performance styles of the four musicians. Both McFarlane and Bullard were somewhat reserved, while Rosenfeld exuded the rhythm and passion of whatever she was playing.
And always there was that voice - otherworldly yet simple and as comforting as your favorite childhood memory. The evening ended as it began, with the lone voice of Custer LaRue singing a civil war ballad, just as perhaps someone did 140 years ago not many miles from where she stood.