EMN’s “Fretwork” mixes new and old, with mixed results
The sextet dropped into Milwaukee Saturday for an Early Music Now program that blended music from England c. 1580 with new music by Orlando Gough. Gough and Fretwork wove — or attempted to weave — old and new together as a continuous, evening-length suite. They pinned the music to Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe, 1577-80, a journey made primarily for the opportunity to steal from the Spanish gold that the Spanish had stolen from New World natives. Drake succeeded, fabulously.
Fretwork and Gough pinned their musical voyage on the fact that a viol quartet sailed with Drake. According to a fascinating eyewitness account, quoted at length in the program book (download it here), the hymn singing and viol playing had a great effect on natives Drake encountered in the Caribbean, Latin America, California, Bali and elsewhere.
Gough structured the piece after the voyage. His dozen contributions range from a more or less straight setting of Fortune My Foe, which Liam Byrne, Richard Tunnicliffe and Richard Boothby sang in a lusty, seaman’s vernacular. Otherwise, Gough offered freely conceived, illustrative music in a range of idioms. Hints of Ives wafted through in polytonal treatments of old hymns, fractured versions of antique divisional improvisational style, and slow-moving grounds with no variations above them.
All of these pieces, from two to five minutes each, have some striking ideas. But those ideas float in a stream-of-consciousness soup that remains all parts and no sum, both within episodes and across the whole concert. I also found the shifts of style from whatever Gough happened to be doing and the smooth-flowing Renaissance counterpoint and the seafarer’s humble Anglican hymns jarring.
The superb players — Susanna Pell, Asako Morikawa and Reiko Ichise, in addition to the gentlemen — lavished their great agility, rhythmic verve and pristine ensemble on music old and new.
The viol was really a household instrument, its voice is small — a little too small for UWM’s Zelazo Center, where the concert took place — and its frets preclude the expressive throb of vibrato. But it did develop a virtuoso tradition based on fleetness and clarity of articulation and rhythm. Saturday, we heard some of that in an outburst of astonishing contrapuntal fireworks in Robert Parson’s In Nomine III. You weren’t supposed to clap until intermission, but applause erupted anyway after that number ignited irrepressible enthusiasm.
That bit aside, I can’t say I enjoyed this concert. Gough’s music failed to shed much light on the older music around it, and old and new did not sit well together. But Fretwork and Gough came up with an intriguing idea and followed through on it. I admire their thinking and their effort.