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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sounds of the Street

Classical Review

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"ShamelessCommerce” was an appropriate title for the annual Early Music Now concert featuring a fundraising auction at intermission. 16th and 17th century vendors’ tunes from London and the English countryside, selling everything from chimney sweeping to oysters, comprised the concert by the ensemble Hesperus at the UW- Milwaukee Zelazo Center on Saturday night. EMN continues to be the only organization in town to exploit the predinner 5 p.m. Saturday start time.

A few of the tunes were simply presented, sometimes in canon, but most were arrangements by composers of the era fascinated with the sounds of the streets and lanes. Thomas Morley, Thomas Ravenscroft, Henry Purcell, and other British composers were represented. The lighthearted evening was performed by various combinations of six singers, one who also played lute, and five viol players. A few brief instrumental numbers occasionally spelled the sung pieces.

I was most taken with soprano Jennifer Ellis Kampani, whose clear, focused voice has the bite and carrying quality of an operatic soubrette. The other singers were alto Marjorie Bunday, baritone Steven Combs, mezzosoprano Barbara Hollinshead, and tenor Robert Baker.

Besides director Tina Chancey, the viol players of Hesperus include Marie Dalby, Daniel Rippe, Alice Robbins and Brent Wissick. The voices were good and the performances lively, often broad and eager, and with a good-natured dose of ham to match the earthy comedy of some of the material. Chancey offered brief and amusing commentary throughout. The two most ambitious numbers employed complex counterpoint, interweaving many tunes. “The Cries of London” is a pastiche of street cries by Orlando Gibbons, and “Country Cries,” a similar treatment of rural vendors’ songs by Richard Dering. Both had the singers wandering the audience, selling hard.

The program was certainly well planned and paced, moving swiftly from one selection to the next. It was a refreshing theme, but I wouldn’t have wanted any more of it. By the end, I longed for a little more substance from that great age of the English Renaissance. Wasn’t there perhaps just one philosophizing country salesman, or a street vendor who sang eloquently of unrequited love?
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