Lots of concerts are presented under an umbrella title that attempts to both accurately describe the links among the various works performed and offers an appealing concept to the public. But usually the concept is over-broad (“Love and War”) with the music unable to effectively support the dramatic idea.
The Newberry Consort, on the other hand, offered a concept concert here in Hyde Park Saturday night at the Logan Center which was an entertaining story told in instrumental music, solo and ensemble singing, and spoken voice, all enhanced with projected visuals and translations. The concert was not only marvelous but had admirable focus.
It’s no surprise that their performance of “Le Roman de Fauvel” fit together so well. It was drawn from manuscripts compiled in the early 1300s all concerned with a single idea: the tale of Fauvel (as told in a poetic parable by Gervais du Bus) with numerous musical works and color illustrations. All these things together told the story of a horse who represented the worst in man: greed, corruption, envy, cowardice and the like. The character of Fauvel was inspired by a corrupt official in the court of Philip the Fair, King of France.
The concert, more of a stage piece really, was a series of pieces with different moods and in different forms, which set out the parable of Fauvel, beginning with an introduction, describing just who he was and went on to describe his moral decline. The various musical pieces flowed easily from one to the next, often without break. From time to time a narrator read some of Gervais’s poetry.
The music was splendid, with Ellen Hargis serving as the main singer. Her voice had depth and she put marvelous interpretative talents on display. The plaintive quality of her singing was vivid in a ballad about love, and she took a brief turn with spoken voice toward the end of the performance, showing off her nonmusical dramatic skills.
Debra Nagy was engaging singing the role of Lady Fortune. In an early selection in the concert, she and Hargis blended beautifully in a duet featuring some bracing dissonance. Nagy has a vocal sound with a pleasing gentle quality and she took a simple, direct approach to the music.
Joining the Newberry Consort in the performance was The Rookery, an all-male ensemble made up of six singers. Joseph Hubbard sang in the ensemble and also sang the role of Fauvel. He deployed his deep voice to good effect and had just the right touch of humor and silliness.
Another member of The Rookery took on the role of narrator. Matthew Dean regularly read selections of poetry in medieval French with aplomb and was an effective speaker, which is saying a lot when you consider that audience members (with perhaps a few exceptions — after all this is Hyde Park) had to rely entirely on the projected translations. My only quibble here, is that occasionally speakers had music playing while they spoke, which was very effective. But mostly this was not the case and so tended to make the spoken portions contribute a halting quality to the program. Yet the narrations were important to telling the story and Dean did a great job.
The Rookery men added texture to the performance with their singing and they were exuberant in that part of the tale which involved a little riot, creating endearing cacophony.
The instrumentalists were top-notch, led by David Douglass on vielle and rebec, two early bowed string instruments. He played gorgeously and made it seem effortless.
Christa Patton sported several instruments and was ravishing on the harp. Her bagpipes were also great, leaving me wanting to hear more.
Daniel Stillman also performed on multiple instruments, making his biggest splash with his haunting and airy recorder.
Various members of the ensemble took on the sharm, an instrument with long, narrow body with a bell-shape at the bottom. Hundreds of years ago these instruments were used in battle, because of their forceful sound, and the consort members playing them created clear declarative lines that grabbed your attention.
A large screen behind and above the performers added dimension to the performance. Throughout there were projections of medieval drawings, music scores and manuscripts to enhance the performance, with many showing the horse-hooved and human-headed Fauvel. These graphics were paired with easy-to-read translations of the spoken or sung texts, so that you always knew what was going on. It was an excellent use of modern technology to heighten the appreciation of the 14th century and was skillfully created by Shawn Keener.
The Newberry Consort performs throughout Chicago, but has some deep Hyde Park connections. It was founded by Howard Mayer Brown, the late professor of musicology at the University of Chicago for whom the Howard Mayer Brown Early Music Series (part of University of Chicago Preents) is named. Brown was the mentor of David Douglass and Ellen Hargis, the husband and wife team who now run the group. More than one board member lives here in Hyde Park, including James Fackinthal, who kindly provided me with much background information on the concert.
The Newberry Consort returns to Hyde Park in April for their final concert of the 2015-16 season. They have put together an all-female group of singers and instrumentalists to perform vespers music of Juan de Lienas, a Mexican baroque composer. The performance is at Rockefeller Chapel on Apr. 9 at 8 p.m. with a pre-concert lecture at 7 p.m.