Newberry Consort gives inspired advocacy to Biber rarities

Tue Feb 23, 2010 at 6:10 am

By Gerald Fisher

Two concerts by the Newberry Consort this weekend highlighted this celebrated ensemble’s many strengths. On Friday the youthful and talented Baroque Music Ensemble of Northwestern University’s School of Music gave an all-Biber concert at Fourth Presbyterian Church. The occasion was the second annual Emerging Artists Concert presented by the Newberry Consort, and it was a prime example of the fertile results ensemble cross- breeding can bring.

Both David Douglass, the violinist-leader of the Newberry and Ellen Hargis the principal soprano, are Artists-in- Residence at the Northwestern Music School, and the result of their collaboration was proudly on display. Conducting duties were shared by Douglass and Stephen Alltop the Ensemble’s director.

The choice of music by Biber—a Bohemian who lived from 1644 to 1704—was an inspired one. Here is a first-rate composer standing midway between Monteverdi and Bach, mostly unknown save for his violin works but prolific in choral and instrumental music of great sophistication and beauty.

The instrumental piece Biber is best known for is Battalia – a novelty item but foreshadowing modernists like Ives and Cage in its originality. The Ensemble’s string players brought off the percussive effects of this musical depiction of a battle and its aftermath with panache.

But the heart of the evening was in the choral music, and the Requiem in F minor (c. 1692) is one of Biber’s masterworks. Performed by a 13-member  chamber orchestra (that included three trombones and a chamber organ) and 9 vocalists, Biber’s richly varied vocal solos, duos and quartets played off against each other and the piece unfolded at a brisk pace with scarcely a pause between sections – almost a proto-symphony.

A few under-rehearsed moments were more than made up for by gems of ensemble work throughout the evening’s performance. Particularly fine was the soprano duo of Emilie Ross and Katelin Spencer conversing with the paired baroque oboes of Jennifer Moore and Rachel Waxman in Alleluia, tres reges de Saba veniunt (1700) which anticipates Pergolesi and early Classical style.

The mostly instrumental Serenada a 5, Nightwatchman’s Call (1673), gave suave baritone Corey Gregg a puckish moment as a night watchman strolling in and out of the performance, calling out the hour against a flurry of plucked strings.

A more conventional early-music experience was to be had at the Newberry Library Saturday night as core members of the Consort performed a mixed program titled Music Hath Charms, loosely relating to a Newberry Library symposium on disease and disability in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The connection was a stretch. A lot of the pieces were neither Medieval nor Renaissance, nor were many related to disease at all. Running the gamut from Dowland to Marin Marais to anonymous street songs, they jostled one another with out-of-context styles and onyl vaguely relevant subject matter.

Not that these experienced presenters didn’t give their best shots to the pieces individually. The opening set featured Dowland’s low-lying song In Darkness Let Me Dwell (1610) beautifully handled by Ellen Hargis.

A highlight of this farrago was inevitably Marais’ Gall-Stone Operation (c. 1720) with spoken description of the event mirrored by the music, giving the gamba player, Craig Trompeter, an opportunity to display his mastery of French Baroque style.

Other bright spots included David Schrader’s performance of a Toccata for harpsichord, probably not by Purcell, and a buoyant section of Bach’s Coffee Cantata sung in English, with Brandi Berry’s alert violin playing outstanding.

The last piece, Rinckauer wine tastes great! by Adam Krieger ended the evening on a high note, driving the symposium participants to a spread of wine and cheese in the lobby.

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