by Joe & Elizabeth Kahn

Tuesday, March 23, , UNC-CH: One of the chief functions of musicologists is to render the music of the past accessible to modern audiences. Our readers in the Triangle are, of course, aware of the many performances on period instruments of works by well known composers. But often audiences end up preferring the more modern sound simply because it is what they are used to.

Another side of the musicologist’s job is to unearth and perform music that has either been lost or frozen in obsolete notation. For the antiquarian, there is tremendous excitement in simply bringing this music to light, putting another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of history. But every discovery does not necessarily yield a masterpiece; modern audiences with less historical curiosity may often well wonder what all the fuss is about. This was pretty much the case in a concert of music from the courts of sixteenth century France.

Musical extravaganzas in the courts of Renaissance France used to be an all-night affair. In attempting to recreate such an evening, the UNC Consort of Viols, under performer/director Brent Wissick, mercifully condensed the evening’s entertainment into one lively hour.

Assisted by the UNC Violin Band, singers from Fortuna and assorted instrumentalists, including natural trumpets, percussion, harpsichord and theorbo, Wissick and crew opened the program with four short instrumental pieces, followed by a trumpet fanfare to announce the main event: The Balet Comique de la Royne . The Balet was composed for the wedding of Marguerite de Vaudemont, sister of queen Louise de Lorraine (wife of Henri III) and the Duc de Joyeuse on October 15, 1581 in a performance that lasted 5 1/2 hours.

The Consort opened with an anonymous Pavane for the marriage of Louis XIII, a pompous work, as befitted the occasion. This was followed by the lachrymose chanson “Susanne un jour” by Didier Lupi based on the apocryphal story of Suzanna and the elders, better known in its version by Orlando di Lasso. The instrumentalists were accompanied by the voices of Fortuna, who sounded ragged, unprepared and unable to get around the 16th century French.

More successfully rendered was “Une Jeune Fillette à 3” by Eustache Ducaurroy, a work for three viol voices based on a chanson about a girl forced to enter a convent against her will. This was followed by an impressive solo performance by Fred Thomsen on the bass viol of “Un gay Berger” based on a chanson by Thomas Criquillon and adapted in the viola bastarda style by Richardo Rogniono. The viola bastarda style is a virtuoso technique in which the solo bass viol condenses a polyphonic piece to a single line, retaining the full range and providing elaborate embellishments for different “voices.”

A fanfare played on natural trumpets by Deidre Pelletier and Bryan Proksch introduced the grand event, the Balet Comique de la Royne . Pelletier’s performance in particular was impressive, with good intonation and smooth delivery – quite a challenge on a natural trumpet.

Imagine a grand salon packed with elaborately garbed and coiffed courtiers, already heavily wined and dined. Now imagine an equally elaborate masque of Parsifalian length and turbidity of poetry. While we sat silently and reverently before the fruits of great musical creativity and performing talent in the best Victorian concert demeanor, those Renaissance revelers would have been talking, laughing, drinking, flirting, making love and peeing. The Balet was clearly designed with the such accompanying behavior in mind. Think of the fun it would be to blow the arts budget for the entire state of North Carolina for a decade on recreating the whole event. However, without the ambience of the French court, the music alone, no matter how well played, is pretty stilted.

But since we were part of a modern audience, we dutifully critique the performance along contemporary standards. First of all, kudos to Wissick and his Consort of Viols. The Consort maintained admirable control over these temperamental instruments that – frets and all – can so easily go out of tune. Equal congratulations should go to the UNC Violin Band, who played two – thankfully – lively entrées in the otherwise plodding Balet . The vocal soloists, soprano Sarah Powell, counter-tenor Jonas Laughlin and baritone Jonathan Rohr, were also excellent in their neo-classical roles as Tethys, Mercure & Jupiter, and Glaucus.

Laughlin, especially, could have a major career, starting now, on the early music circuit. Alas, we don’t know what ailed the Fortuna singers: too little rehearsal time? Colds?

Note. The venue was the Rare Book Room of UNC’s Wilson Library.