Baltimore Consort Offers Old Fashioned Christmas

Lovely songs from centuries ago performed with original instruments and stylings.

By - Nov 28th, 2023 08:50 am
Baltimore Consort. Photo courtesy of Early Music Now.

Baltimore Consort. Photo courtesy of Early Music Now.

Musicians may be the original recyclers: they are notorious for reusing tunes. That tradition is celebrated by the Baltimore Consort, the featured group for the Early Music Now series Dec. 2 and 3, with a concert entitled “Wassail, Wassail!” — which refers to holiday songs or drinks. This concert shares and enhances tunes originating in France, Germany and the British Isles. Audience members can expect “a lively, eclectic mix of early music on instruments that tickle the fancy, intrigue the eye and please the ear,” according to a reviewer.

Ensembles called consorts emerged in the early 17th century as six-member groups playing similar instruments (say, all recorders or all viols). The Baltimore Consort, together for more than four decades, follows the model of the “broken consort,” mixing instruments from different families. For the Milwaukee performances, five players will take the stage: Mary Anne Ballard (viols); Mark Cudek (cittern, viol, crumhorn); Larry Lipkis (viol, recorder, gemshorn, crumhorn); Ronn McFarlane (lute) and Mindy Rosenfeld (wooden flutes and fifes, crumhorn, pipes). They will be joined by soprano Danielle Svonavec.

Ballard said considerable research is the foundation of all Consort programs, including what she called “the Baltimore Consort’s Christmas gifts to its audience.” The Yuletide selections are drawn from sources as varied as composers Michael Praetorius, who published a compendium of 300 dance tunes in 1612, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who traveled through the English countryside three centuries later to collect and transcribe traditional songs. As an editor of The Oxford Book of Carols, Vaughan Williams created new carols by pairing religious Christmas texts with folk tunes. Among the examples on the program is “Rorate caeli desuper,” a poem by William Dunbar (c. 1459-1530), matched with an 18th century Scottish air, “Bright Day-Star.” Similarly, the Consort performs an instrumental version of a 16th century French dance tune, Branle de l’Official, re-popularized 100 years ago when an Anglican priest added words to create the carol now known as “Ding Dong Merrily on High.”

The practice of recycling the same melodies for both sacred and secular music has been common for centuries, Ballard said. Musical flexibility also infuses the players’ artistry on Renaissance instruments that produce colors described on the Consort’s website as “ranging from the almost vocal sound of the bowed strings to the chirpy, bird-like sound of the high winds, the twang of the wire-strung cittern, and the buzz of the crumhorns.” The site contains excellent descriptions and sound samples of instruments used in this weekend’s concerts.

The festive vocal and instrumental delights of “Wassail, Wassail!” will be performed at 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3 at St. Joseph Chapel, 1501 S. Layton Blvd. There will be a pre-concert lecture at 4 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets for both performances are available through the Early Music Now web site.

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