THE NEWBERRY CONSORT –BEGINNINGS
The Newberry Consort, “Chicago’s gift to the early music world” (the Boston Globe) was the brainchild of two old friends, Howard Mayer Brown and Mary Springfels. Brown, who died in 1993, was a brilliant musicologist and a great supporter of early music performance and performers. Mary Springfels was a well-known performer on early stringed instruments and an avid scholar of music history. Brown had offered Springfels the directorship of the early music ensemble at the University of Chicago, and then discovered that the Newberry Library was considering adding a concert series to their public programs.
The Newberry Library, founded in 1887, is one of the few surviving American independent research libraries that remains free and open to the public. In the 1980’s, visionary leaders decided to create an in-house early music series, loosely based on the model of the Folger Consort in Washington DC. In 1981, Springfels was offered a residency at the Library with a mandate: to demonstrate through first-rate musical performances that a non-academic might make imaginative use of the treasures housed in a unique and marvelously eccentric research library.
Early Music from the Newberry Library
The first few concert seasons were called “Early Music From the Newberry Library.” Springfels put together ensembles suited to a wide variety of repertoires: The artists included the singers Jeffrey Gall, Drew Minter, Paul Elliott, Judith Nelson, Julianne Baird and Judith Malafronte. Guest instrumentalists were a veritable who’s who of outstanding early music virtuosi: Among them were David Hart, Wendy Gillespie, Sarah Cunningham, Margriet Tindemans, Marion Verbrueggen, Colin Tilney, David Schrader, Paul O’Dette, John Holloway, Stanley Ritchie and David Douglass. Their efforts were a critical and popular success.
THE FORMATION OF THE CONSORT
By 1986, the ensemble had coalesced into a core of musicians supplemented as needed by guest artists. The first incarnation of the Newberry Consort consisted of Drew Minter, David Hart, David Douglass and Springfels. Flutist David Hart died tragically in 1988 at the age of 37. Shortly after Hart’s death, mezzo-soprano Judith Malafronte and lutenist Kevin Mason became members of the Newberry Consort. Personnel changed over the years: By 2008, the membership consisted of Springfels, Minter, Douglass and Ellen Hargis.
Under Springfels’ direction, the Consort performed unusual repertoires and explored early music in unusual ways. They experimented with medieval story-telling, setting Arthurian Legends and bawdy Italian poetry to recitation formulas; and worked with the Newberry’s wonderful collection of Renaissance occult literature to recreate “magical “music. Another project featured music of the court of Queen Christina in Rome, followed by a screening of the old Garbo “Queen Christina” classic film. With Drew Minter, Springfels presented the Chicago debuts of Scarlatti’s dramatic oratorios “La Giuditta” and “Agar et Ismaele”. With the pipa and erhu virtuosi Yang Wei and Betty Xiang and percussionist Najib Bahri, the Consort put on a Marco Polo Show—a Silk Road project with early music.
The Consort has toured actively from 1985 to the present. The ensemble has appeared at the prestigious Boston, Utrecht and Regensberg Early Music festivals, and performed in Italy and England, as well as in early music festivals and series throughout the US, Mexico and Canada.
From the beginning, the Consort has been committed to educational outreach at the highest levels. Springfels and the Newberry Library Renaissance Center director Mary Beth Rose designed an innovative National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored summer program taught by Howard Brown, Benito Rivera, and Springfels. As a part of the ambitious series of programs devised by the Newberry’s Center for Renaissance Studies, the Consort worked with 20 American colleges and Universities over a period of 5 years, appearing in classrooms to provoke discussions about music and the humanities, and gave concerts in each of the institutions. The program, “Music as a Cultural Institution in the Middle Ages and Renaissance” was also sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Consort has been Ensemble-in-Residence at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University in Evanston for more than a decade, performing their Chicago concert series on the campuses as well providing classroom visits, coaching, and directing the early music ensembles.
The Consort’s work soon drew the attention of harmonia mundi use, and under that label, the ensemble made eight acclaimed recordings: “Music for Severall Friends” featured Drew Minter and the music of John Wilson. “Ay Amor!” was a pioneering recording of the music of Juan Hidalgo, with Judith Malafronte as soloist. “Il Solazzo “ explored the repertoire of early 15th Century Italy, and is still available as “Music for a Medieval Banquet”. “Wanderer’s Voices” contrasted the musical and narrative personae of German and Galician poet-musicians. “I Have Seen the Map of the World” centered around the 15th Century “Missa lo Mappa Mundi” of Juan Cornago.
“The Golden Dream” grew out of a concert commissioned by Wellsey College to accompany an exhibit of exquisite Dutch genre drawings. The Consort’s work can also be heard and seen on YouTube, and in a live concert recording of it’s latest Mexican Convent music project “Música Celestial”, featuring baroque music for women’s voices and instruments.
Upon his death, Howard Brown left the Library the largest bequest it was to receive in the 20th century. The Consort made three recordings to honor his memory and a few of his many musical interests: “Villon to Rabelais” was built upon Brown’s early work with French theatrical songs; “A Candle in the Dark” honored his passion for the English Renaissance; “Puzzles and Perfect Beauty” was a mirror of Springfels’ and Brown’s shared fascination with late 14th century music.
Time for a Change
After 25 years of program research, essays, lectures, and performances, Mary Springfels decided to retire from the Library, and in 2007, Consort member David Douglass took over direction of the ensemble. During the economic downturn of 2008, the Newberry Library was forced to end many public programs, including the Consort’s residency, Immediately several loyal supporters of the Consort banded together to ensure the continuation of the ensemble. Thanks to the pro-bono efforts of these friends, the Consort organized as a not-for-profit group, and a small but determined Board of Directors was formed. After many years of hard work, the Consort boasts a strategic plan, a strong donor base, a robust Board of Directors, and continues as a treasure in the Chicago cultural scene.
In 2009, Douglass was joined by co-director Ellen Hargis. Together they have continued the cutting-edge work begun by Springfels, while expanding into new territory. Douglass assembled, arranged, and directed a period-music score for Sarah Bernhardt’s silent film “The Loves of Queen Elizabeth”. Hargis has researched, edited, and produced three programs of Mexican convent music drawn from a rare set of 17th c. choirbooks at the Newberry Library.
In collaboration with Michael Miles, banjo, and actor Paul Hecht, they presented a concert of music from Lincoln’s America featuring gut-strung banjo, historical piano, and readings from contemporary accounts. Their multi-media performance of the medieval Cantigas de Santa Maria were critically acclaimed in Chicago, and have toured throughout the US, culminating in performances in Boston and New York City. This year, in their 30th Anniversary season, they will present the Consort’s first-ever staged production. Celebrating the Shakespeare anniversary year with a set of Elizabethan Jigs, or street theater skits, they will perform in full costume, and with a Renaissance string band. Later in the season, Founding Director Springfels will return to perform German medieval music with the Consort’s now-trademark visual display and supertitles.
Investing in the future of early music performance, the Consort has initiated a Young Artist Mentorship Program, which invites rising stars in the early music field to rehearse and perform in a world-class project with seasoned performers.