Elizabethan-era program of English music proves ‘fit for a queen’
Soprano Laura Heimes and viol consort deliver delightful mix of airs and dances from the court of Elizabeth I
If one could travel through time, 16th-century England would be a splendid destination – provided of course you didn’t land in the Tower of London, or find yourself married to Henry VIII.
NYS Baroque provided Friday evening’s Syracuse audience a taste of courtly entertainment as it was practiced during the Golden Age of Queen Elizabeth, and without having to fuss with a time-machine. Judging from the enthusiastic response of the crowd following the two-hour performance, it’s clear that listeners thoroughly enjoyed the excursion. And nobody lost his/her head.
Consort music, music for like-instruments of varying sizes, was immensely popular throughout 16th-century England, ensconcing itself within the fabric of social life from the Queen’s courtly entertainments to in-home amusements for musical amateurs. Consorts of stringed instruments, comprising treble, alto, tenor and bass viols designed to mimic the range of the human voice, were especially popular – finding favor among the leading composers of the day including John Dowland, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons.
Friday’s program of songs and dances, titled “Tears and Triumphs: Music for the Virgin Queen,” added voice and lute to the standard viol consort – a practice common at the time and championed by England’s greatest composer of the period, William Byrd. The mixed ensemble comprising Laura Heimes (soprano), Deborah Fox (lute), Julie Andrijeski (violin), Motomi Igarashi, Heather Miller Lardin, David Morris and Lisa Terry (viols), made it possible to program consort song in addition to more intimate lute song.
The most engaging parts of the performance were the Dowland lute songs for voice and lute, whose sparse accompaniments afforded the listener the greatest opportunity to savor Heimes’ crystal-clear, velvety tone as well as her delicately massaged phrases.
The most celebrated of these Dowland songs, Flow my Tears, is a tender pavane (slow dance in the musical form of aabbcc) that invites the performer to embellish and ornament the melodic phrases when they repeat. Here, as in the composer’s Can She Excuse that followed, Heimes found the proper balance between expression and understatement to produce a beautiful simplicity within these expressive yet controlled song settings. While I may have welcomed greater liberty in Heimes’ ornamentations and embellishments during the repeated sections, the soprano’s reserved approach yielded a convincing interpretation I thought worked quite well.
I was particularly impressed with Heimes’ variety of phrasing in the strophic setting of Thomas Campion’s It fell on a Summer’s Day, another lute song, where she couched each successive repetition of the melodic material differently, as if a contrasting phrase. She appeared to find meaning in virtually every word in this four-strophe poem, which was conveyed to the listener with crisp diction. Deborah Fox provided a gracious and unobtrusive accompaniment to each of the lute songs.
Heimes’ command of pitch is also worthy of mention – even during those songs with tessituras stretching up to high Gs and sitting there, such as in Tobias Hume’s Fain Would I Change that Note.
The substitution of violin for treble viol produced a brighter tonal timbre better suited to the many dance numbers on the program. Indeed, balance among the strings during the instrumental numbers was consistently satisfying, with the homophonic textures (melody & accompaniment style) of the dance movements sounding more clearly as a result of the high-voiced instrument’s soaring to the fore. Any such advantage was lost, however, when the strings were called upon to accompany the singer during the consort songs.
The larger and brighter tone of Andrijeski’s violin, when paired with Heimes’ chamber-sized vocal presence, created balance problems in Edward Johnson’s charming Eliza is the fairest Queen – a galliard (Elizabeth’s favorite dance) whose dance-like demeanor seems rather unsuited to a song setting. Similar problems arose in the other consort songs, particularly Dowland’s Lasso Vita Mia, Gibbons’ The Silver Swan and Morley’s Hard by a Crystal Fountain. The live acoustics within First Unitarian Universalist Society’s sanctuary further muddied the disparate blend of timbres.
Balance problems notwithstanding, Friday’s concert was among the most pleasant listening experiences I can recall within the genre of Pre-Baroque music. The 28 works on the program afforded the listener a colorful look into a rich and vibrant era in music history, one whose inventiveness of melody and sly shifting between major and minor modes tickles the listener’s fancy as much today perhaps as it did during the reign of Elizabeth I.
Long live fair Oriana! We now return you to the 21st-century, already in progress…
What: NYS Baroque presents “Music for the Virgin Queen”
Where: First Unitarian Universalist Church, 109 Waring Rd., Syracuse
When: October 23, 2009
Who: Laura Heimes, soprano, Deborah Fox, Lute, consort of viols
Time: Two hours
Information: Call (607) 533-4383
Ticket prices: $5 to $25
Next Syracuse concert: Jephta, 4 P.M. Sunday, April 11, 2010 First Unitarian Universalist Church, 109 Waring Rd., Syracuse