Newberry Consort pays homage to the versatile Count von Wolkenstein

Sat Jan 14, 2017 at 1:49 pm

By Tim Sawyier

The Newberry Consort performed music of Count von Wolkenstein Friday night at the Newberry Library.

The Newberry Consort presented the second program of their 30th anniversary season Friday night at the Newberry Library’s Ruggles Hall. Entitled “The Count,” the concert was devoted to music of Count Oswald von Wolkenstein (1376-1445), a peripatetic nobleman with the singular pastime of recording his personal exploits and musings in song. The performance successfully overcame the surface uniformity of Wolkenstein’s output, and was overall a compelling and expertly executed examination of his oeuvre.

The Consort opened with the first verse of Wolkenstein’s autobiographical “Es fügt sich, da ich was von zehen jaren alt,” and four further verses punctuated the rest of the program. These covered such topics as the hardships Wolkenstein encountered upon leaving home, the places he visited, the languages he spoke, the instruments he played, and his time as a wandering monk. All these were sung exquisitely by countertenor Drew Minter, whose emphatic, bardic delivery made for evocative storytelling. 

The Consort represented Wolkenstein’s bawdier side with selections such as “Frölich geschrai so well wir machen, lachen” and “Simm Gredlin,” the content of which bordered on the pornographic. In the former all the performers contributed vocals in a polymathic display, and in the latter Consort co-director soprano Ellen Hargis achieved a silky blend in the unaccompanied opening duet with Minter. The bucolic “Wol auff wol an! kind” and militaristic “Nu huss!” also found Hargis and Minter in vocal sync. 

In “Komm, liebster Mann” Hargis also collaborated beautifully with Debra Nagy, who lent her burnished vocal timbre to the proceedings along with her expert shawm and recorder playing. The vocal trio of Hargis, Minter, and Nagy closed the evening on a spiritual note in their ethereal rendering of “Ave Müter Königinne.”

Indeed Wolkenstein’s most successful songs are not those that recount the events of his life, but those that mine more spiritual and psychological depths. The highpoint of the night was Minter’s poignant rendering of “Mein sünd und schuld,” in which the count wistfully laments his lost youth and physical decline, exhorting young people to seek God above earthly glories.

The Newberry’s instrumental ensemble solidly supported the solo singing, their rhapsodic, quasi-improvisatory introductions, interludes, and accompaniments both grounding and lending atmosphere to the proceedings. Two instrumental selections each had a poised lilt, and Newberry founding director Mary Springfels was a particularly welcome guest presence on the medieval vielle and citole.

As always with Newberry Consort programs, a significant amount of scholarship went into this production. Director David Douglass deserves plaudits for arranging Wolkenstein’s music into a performable state, which included composing supporting lines where the manuscript provided none.

Translations were projected on a large screen along with images of manuscripts, neumes, maps, and period artwork in a display curated by Shawn Keener, whose work here was on a par with her commendable contribution to the Newberry Consort’s “Le Roman de Fauvel” last season. Without the variety provided by such multimedia adornments the stylistic homogeneity of Wolkenstein’s music could have made for a tedious evening, but the combined result was anything but dull.

“The Count: Music of Oswald von Wolkenstein” repeats 8 p.m. Saturday at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts, and 3 p.m. Sunday at Northwestern’s Galvin Recital Hall in Evanston.

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