Early music groups come and go in Chicago, but the ensemble that started it all continues to thrive, setting an example of artistic integrity and sound management for the groups that have followed in its wake.
Having survived a serious funding crisis in 1997 and the retirement of founder Mary Springfels, the Newberry Consort soldiered on, wisely staying small, flexible and true to its musical mission, dusting off forgotten but worthwhile preclassical instrumental and vocal works and presenting them in a fresh, invigorating manner.
Without current co-directors David Douglass and his wife, soprano Ellen Hargis, and their equally committed colleagues, setting the bar high, Chicago’s early music scene would be a far less vital affair. For certain, Chicago would not be the Midwestern hub of historically informed early music performance it is today: We now have audiences and funders supporting a wide range of activity.
The Newberry Consort launched its 30th anniversary season over the weekend by doing what it is known for, building a well-researched program around a nearly forgotten body of works. In this case, the audience was given a rare glimpse into the street theater tradition of Elizabethan England, timed to coincide with the Shakespeare anniversary year.
Casting themselves as members of a traveling theatrical troupe, the nine singers and instrumentalists (that is, a violin band with guitars and lute) presented Douglass’ musical reconstruction of stage jigs, bawdy skits set to popular tunes of the day. These mass entertainments typically were led by professional clowns such as Will Kemp, a popular member of the Bard’s stage troupe the Chamberlain’s Men.
Impersonating Kemp for the weekend performances – of which I caught the Friday night concert at the Newberry Library – was Steven Player, a deft actor, musician, dancer and teacher who specializes in Renaissance and baroque dance.
Cavorting and leering like an Elizabethan ancestor of the late, great British comedian Benny Hill, Player’s jester was a storyteller and singing actor of antic naughtiness, spouting off-color puns, getting touchy-feely with female members of the troupe, dancing gigs on a small wooden stage and atop the cabaret tables around which audience members sat and clapped along with his not always fancy footwork.
It was all great, silly fun, and none of these lowbrow stage shenanigans – think of them as Elizabethan England’s answer to Italian commedia dell’arte — could remotely be confused with High Art.
Although the original texts that have come down to us preserve the rhyming dialogs, the manuscripts contain none of the popular tunes to which the scripts were attached. So Douglass and stage director Hargis had to reconstruct both the music and staging conventions, and did so in consultation with other scholar-performers.
They did a fine job of it, with Douglass providing a playlist of popular Elizabethan ballads and songs that, in the three stage jigs that made up the program, jibed seamlessly with the rhymed comedy as performed by Player’s rubber-faced Kemp and his fellow troupers.
Never mind that the farce – storylines concerned drinking, canoodling, pickpocketing and related lowbrow indulgences – makes today’s sitcoms feel like Moliere. Then, as now, the play was the thing, and the catchy tunes carried the day.
Dressed in costumer Meriem Bahri’s artful recreations of stock Elizabethan theatrical attire, Player and his players entered into the ribald nonsense with gleeful abandon. His bug-eyed Kemp was first among equals in company with the admirable baritone Jeffrey Strauss, the clear tenor Corey Shotwell, and Hargis and Bahri as the resident wenches.
But without a crack instrumental engine driving the playlets, perhaps not even the roaring Player could have suspended audience disbelief. Fortunately Douglass and his string colleagues (Tim Macdonald, Brandi Berry and Jeremy David Ward), and lutenist Brandon Acker, brought the street songs (including “Greensleeves”) to life with crisp vivacity and stylistic insight.
Repeat performances were scheduled Saturday at the Logan Center for the Arts and Sunday at Northwestern University’s Galvin Recital Hall.
It’s good news that Newberry Consort founding directors Mary Springfels, viola da gamba, and Drew Minter, countertenor, will return as guest artists for January concerts devoted to music by the nearly forgotten 14th-century German composer and nobleman Oswald von Wolkenstein.
The 30th anniversary season of the Newberry Consort continues Jan. 13-15 and March 3-5 at the Newberry Library, Galvin Recital Hall and Logan Center for the Arts; 773-669-7335; www.newberryconsort.org.
John von Rhein is a Tribune critic.