Newberry Consort hits its stride under Malamut with de Lassus

Sun Mar 19, 2023 at 10:14 am

By Tim Sawyier

Liza Malamut led the Newberry Consort in “Oracles, Prophets and Dreams” Saturday night at Bond Chapel. Photo: Elliot Mandel

Leadership transitions are a delicate time for any organization, with performing ensembles no exception. When the husband-and-wife team of David Douglass and Ellen Hargis decided to step down as co-artistic directors of the Newberry Consort after a tenure of 15 years, it was hard for many to imagine the group without them at the helm.

Saturday night’s concert at the University of Chicago’s Bond Chapel showed that not a stitch had been dropped in the transition and the reins have been handed off successfully to new artistic director Liza Malamut, who curated a program that embodied the Consort’s tradition of probing scholarship and refined performance.

“Oracles, Prophets, and Dreams,” as the evening was billed, centered on the Sibylline Prophecies of Orlando de Lassus, and offered a rare opportunity to hear this complete work in live performance. While the score’s origin and inspiration are a matter of scholarly dispute, its musical interest is unambiguous.

Lassus sets twelve oracular texts of the Sybils, prophetesses of ancient Greek mythology who subsequently appeared in Christian writings, both in antiquity and the Renaissance. Throughout the dozen motets, Lassus employs unexpected harmonic pivots that convey the otherworldliness of the texts, and which the performers Saturday emphasized to the intended effect.

The personnel included both a vocal quartet and a quartet of Renaissance wind specialists. The former comprised soprano Elena Mullins Bailey, mezzo Laura Pudwell, tenor Matthew Dean, and bass Paul Guttry; the latter featured Margaret Brown Owens, Priscilla Herreid, and Daniel Stillman on reeds and recorders, and Malamut herself on sackbut. 

All were supported by a continuo of Grant Herreid on lute and Naomi Gregory on organ. Collectively they made an agile consort who weaved their way through Lassus’ intricate lines with flexibility and grace.

For all their intrigue, the twelve movements of the Sibylline Prophecies are rather self-similar, and it was a smart choice by Malamut to punctuate these with other thematically related offerings, which gave individual ensemble members a chance to shine.

Dean’s welcoming tenor was well-suited in Cipriano de Rore’s madrigal “O sonno,” Bailey shone in Byrd’s “Farewell false love, the oracle of lies,” and bass Paul Guttry—a late substitution—brought depth to “Il dolce sonno mi promise pace” of Giaches de Wert. The ninth of Lassus’ Sybils, “Europaea,” was a solo turn for Pudwell, whose eloquence matched her colleagues’.

Malamut offered running commentary throughout the performance, elaborating on the Sybils’ tales beyond what she offered in her erudite program note. She appeared quietly but undeniably in command, a difficult balance for a leader to strike, particularly so early in her tenure.

AV specialist Shawn Keener has greatly enhanced many Newberry productions with her thoughtful and engaging visual accompaniments. Saturday’s projections seemed somewhat perfunctory, simply providing texts and translations with the backdrop of Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel renderings of the Sybils, but this only felt a bit flat compared to her otherwise outstanding work for the ensemble. Keener’s approach remains an excellent way of providing texts without leaving audience members buried in their programs.

Bond Chapel was filled almost to capacity with an attentive and appreciative audience, including a number of UChicago students. It is heartening to see the Consort expanding to new venues under Malamut’s leadership, as the University setting felt particularly suited to Newberry’s scholarly ambitions.

“Oracles, Prophets, and Dream” will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Ganz Hall.

Posted in Performances

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