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Early Music Review Print

A Sailor's Life for Me - and Thee?

June 6, 2005 - Durham, NC:

There are times when I miss going to sea — when attempting to raise money for CVNC*, say, or when having to come up with something informative to say about lackluster concerts.... And recently, two themed programs served as reminders of the delights — and perils — of seafaring. The first featured Women's Voices Chorus in some rare and unusual works in "She Sells Sea Shells." The second, given a month to the day later, on June 6, in the Memorial Chapel within Duke Chapel, featured the Dutch early music ensemble Camerata Trajectina (http://www.camerata-trajectina.nl/ [inactive 7/06]) in an evening devoted to music from Willem Schellinger's Het volmaeckte en toegeruste Schip (The Perfect and Well-Equipped Ship), published in 1678. This sailor's songbook — actually a collection of sea shanties assembled by a retired skipper — runs the gamut from ordering a ship to recruiting the crew (by means of a press gang, shanghaiing inebriated young men in a tavern) to various and sundry voyages — involving the rum, slave, and spice trades — to some of the things sailors do ashore (of which, given the venue — and the nearby remains of all those entombed Dukes... — the less said the better...) to various disasters (one of which led to cannibalism). The program's geographic scope was likewise wide, ranging from close-to-home numbers to works dealing with Greenland, the East and West Indies and, at the end, wars with England.

The ensemble consisted on this occasion of three vocalists and four instrumentalists, but there was some overlapping along the way. Louis Peter Grijp, who played lute and citthern, wrote the program notes and served as the group's spokesperson, briefly and often discreetly introducing the evening's vocal selections, all but one of which were delivered in Dutch. (There were no texts or translations, although there could have been, for we learned after the concert that a CD of the program is available.) Grijp and the other nominal instrumentalists — violinist Annelies van der Vegt, gambist Erik Beijer, and Saskia Coolen, who played recorder and was listed as a gambist, too — also sang from time to time, mostly as a chorus in some of the main numbers involving soprano Heike Meppelenk, tenor Nico van der Meel, and baritone Hans Weÿens. The Utrecht-based artists were ideally suited to the material, for this superior early music ensemble is to the manner born, as someone once said — although songs of sailors and the sea would seem to be somewhat below their artistically exalted station. The diction was stunning, and the solo singers' abilities to convey meaning in and around all those close-aboard consonants made for a constantly-engaging series of often delightful numbers. Some of the songs are not, as Grijp explained, politically correct — some were clearly off-color (in more ways than one), and the "distasteful" one that was sung in English dealt with battle damages that led to a grounding that led to some cooking and eating of shipmates picked by — to use a term being bandied about here, in NC, at the moment — a lottery. The instruments surrounded the songs with sounds not unlike more formal "concert" music from the period — and soloed in their own right in several charming numbers that reminded this listener of old Dutch dances such as those recycled by Julius Röntgen (whose work was paralleled in Italy by Ottorino Respighi). (Even in our own time, of course, sailors and music are not mutually exclusive — on one of this writer's several cruises, shipmates wrote various ditties to entertain the crew, and they weren't all obscene — one, which made fun of a bumbling officer, was a parody of a well-known work by J.S. Bach that we called the "Pardon Me Partita.")

Camerata Trajectina's concert, presented by Duke Performances as part of the university's summer music series, was given in cooperation with the Triangle Recorder Society, which hosted a follow-on masterclass the next day. There was an overflow crowd — some latecomers were seated in the main chapel. The intermission-less concert lasted a little less than an hour and a half and was, from this writer's perspective, truly wonderful in every respect. Those who missed the ensemble here can beat feet to Boston, where they will repeat this program (with much higher ticket prices) on 6/13. See http://www.bemf.org/05/trajectina.htm [inactive 6/05] (where some of the artists' names are not spelled the same as they appeared in the Duke program) for details. And for more information on remaining summer concerts at Duke, visit http://cvnc.org/TriangleChamberMusic.html.

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