Newberry Consort’s artistry upstaged in ramshackle season opener

Sat Sep 23, 2023 at 11:29 am

By Tim Sawyier

Liza Malamut led the Newberry Consort in music by Duchess Sophie Elisabeth Friday night at Hyde Park Union Church. Photo: Matthew Stein

The Newberry Consort opened its 37th season Friday night at Hyde Park Union Church, and its second under the leadership of artistic director Liza Malamut. After curating stellar programs in her debut year, Friday’s program “In the Castle of the Moon,” centered on the music of Sophie Elisabeth, Duchess of Brunswick-Lüneberg, proved the first mixed bag of Malamut’s tenure.

First the good news: the evening’s musicianship and scholarship were at the elevated level one is beginning to expect from Malamut concerts. The assembled consort of four vocalists, four sackbuts, two violinists, viola da gamba, theorbo, and organ offered sensitive interpretations of the largely forgotten Sophie Elisabeth’s 17th-century oeuvre, much of which was being heard on this continent for the first time. Malamut herself made performance editions for the occasion, as most of the music had never been rendered in modern notation.

The vocal quartet of soprano Erica Schuller, mezzo Laura Pudwell, tenor Matthew Dean, and bass-baritone Jonathan Woody were a stylish foursome, bringing grace, fluency, and humor to Sophie Elisabeth’s strophic songs. Schuller’s nimble, inviting soprano lofted Sophie Elisabeth’s “Wolauf mein Herz” and mournful arrangement of the French “As tu encor envie”, while Pudwell’s darker mezzo provided contrast in selections like “Wie dass du doch.”

Dean, an ensemble mainstay, spun the extended “Du kleiner Gott,” a bawdy tale of Cupid’s exploits, into an amusing set piece, and Woody provided an evening highlight in the hypnotic lamenting of “Fili mi Absalom” by Sophie Elisabeth’s mentor Heinrich Schütz (a comparison from which she did not entirely benefit). The four vocalists were well blended, responsive partners in the many selections calling for them in various combinations.

The instrumental support was similarly accomplished, though Malamut occasionally struggled with pitch and security at the top of her register leading the sackbuts. Violinists Alice Culin-Ellison and Brandi Berry Benson seemed effortlessly in sync with the evening’s ancient idiom, and the continuo support was sensitively grounded throughout. As always at Newberry, elegant projections from Shawn Keener provided translations against backdrops of relevant visual art from the period.

Now the bad: much of the evening apart from the music itself was a shambles. Five minutes before curtain the doors to the church had yet to open. When the audience was eventually admitted, they found staff and ensemble members struggling with AV issues related to a new projector, which ultimately delayed the performance by 15 minutes.

More damaging than the delay was the program’s lack of flow and cohesion. There were personnel changes between many of the brief numbers, inviting disruptive applause during the musicians’ awkward maneuvering. Malamut speaks with passion about her research work, but there was so much exposition Friday night the performance at times felt more like a graduate seminar than a concert. This was particularly unnecessary given the erudite five-page essay on the evening’s subject Malamut provided in the program.

The string players tuned incessantly. Yes, ancient instruments are temperamental; yes, pitch in early music is particularly challenging. But with the amount of fussy, extended peg-turning every few minutes on Friday it is a wonder every dog resident in Hyde Park was not summoned to the Union Church. A broken string made for a further interruption, and ultimately the feeling of a dress rehearsal prevailed.

All of this was a significant contrast to Malamut’s previous exceptional programs, which have felt organic, engaging, and streamlined.

“In the Castle of the Moon” repeats 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall, and 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Newberry Consort’s artistry upstaged in ramshackle season opener”

  1. Posted Sep 23, 2023 at 3:32 pm by Chilynne

    Think you’re over-reacting to the delay (minor on a lovely evening) and the informative (and brief) introductions to some of the works. It was a stylish and very interesting program – and, yes, also a scholarly one. Hardly a shambles!!!

  2. Posted Sep 26, 2023 at 3:04 pm by Sylvie

    I heard this concert on Sunday, so perhaps there were problems at the first performance that got ironed out. No bad news to report.

    I liked the variety of styles and themes, ranging from operatic to sacred that showed the wide variety of styles and themes in the period. Lisa Malamut’s comments were succinct, and there was no unusual tuning. It was an engaging and uplifting concert.

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