Perhaps the fine spring weather combined with both the war and economy was responsible for a smaller than usual house in East Carolina University's Wright Auditorium April 2 for the debut of The Baltimore Consort on the Alexander Performing Arts Series. The broad mix of performers is reminiscent of the defunct Friends of the College Series except that the venue is far superior acoustically. For more than a decade I arranged my annual trip to Charleston so as not to miss the annual appearance of the Consort on the Early Music series of the City-sponsored Piccolo Festival. Their College of Charleston venue seated only a few hundred people and was ideal for the dynamics of citterns, lutes and viols. Luckily, Wright has surprisingly good acoustics and everything could be heard pretty well from center row P.
Publicity for the concert alluded to the return of a former ECU track star. Before the concert began, Carol Woodruff, ECU's Director of Cultural Outreach, held a brief ceremony for cittern and bass viol player Mark Cudek, who had been recruited by ECU for its track program. An injury ended that career, but a chance encounter with a lute in a chemistry class (!) led to another. His former coach presented him with Pirate memorabilia.
The program drew upon both one of their earliest CD releases, On the Banks of Helicon , as well as new material recently recorded. Both focus on alternating mixes of instrumental and vocal solos drawn from the rich wells of Scottish popular and court music. Custer LaRue brought her pure soprano to the songs that ranged from the melancholy "Jockey's Lamentation" to the comic onomatopoeia of Piedmont N.C., "The Fox Went out on a Chilly Night," part of the Scottish tradition in America, about a pesky fox that served as a encore to the enthusiastically-received concert. The original CD that featured this credits LaRue with the tune that sets the text from The Pennyroyal Farm Songbook . I have always described the Baltimore Consort as "The Early Music Movement meets the Saturday Night Live Band," which encapsulates their mix of lightly-worn scholarship brought off with humor and showmanship. Of course, their work is founded on scholarship, and lots of it, but it was amusing to see lute and cittern players jiving like rock guitarists and to hear some of their freestyle pizzicato viol playing.
Anyone who has bought their CDs knows that their notes are copious in their respect for their original sources. A chaste "Our Father God Celestial" is a setting of the Lord's Prayer in a unique anonymous translation. Several instrumental settings were dominated by the disconsolate and lachrymose sound of a set of three viols. There were lively and vivacious pieces that featured new member Mindy Rosenfeld on flutes, recorders and fifes. Familiar to
Triangle audiences as a frequent guest artist with Ensemble Courant, Mary Anne Ballard played treble, tenor, bass viols as well as a rebec, an early three-stringed, bowed instrument derived from the Arabian ud or oud. Larry Lipkis played bass viol and soprano recorder while Cudek played bass viol or, more often, a cittern, which he compared to a banjo since its closely spaced strings are plucked with a pick. Ron McFarlane, one of today's finest lute players, was featured in "Maggae Hamfor," from The Rowallen Lute Book, c.1620. Some twenty-two selections were played before the encore. During the concert, each player explained some basic aspects of their many baroque and earlier instruments.
One of the Triangle's mysteries is the long absence of this well-known and popular ensemble from our concert series. Sales of the Baltimore Consort's Dorian recordings were brisk in the lobby at intermission and after the concert, with music lovers choosing from a broad selection of CDs sold at a reasonable $15 instead of the near-$20 sometimes found in stores.