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Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010

Early Music Now, Fretwork’s ‘The World Encompassed’

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If you were setting forth upon the briny main in a sailing ship in 1577 on a voyage of discovery and piracy—one that would take years and circumnavigate the globe—what would you take with you? Such is the question that faced Francis Drake (1540-96) on a November day over four centuries ago. Not on your list, most likely, would be musical instruments and musicians, but Drake insisted upon them, so setting sail along with the crewmen and various provisions were violists Simon Wood, Thomas Meckes, Richard Clarke and someone known to us only as “George, a musician.” For those four musicians it must have been a world tour both wondrous and hellish.

Earlier this year British composer Orlando Gough (b. 1953) assembled something of a Drake expedition playbill he dubbed The World Encompassed for performance by Fretwork (Susanna Pell, Asako Morikawa, Liam Byrne, Reiko Ichise, Richard Tunnicliffe and Richard Boothby). Early Music Now brings Fretwork to Milwaukee to perform Gough’s amazing program only five months after its world premiere in London.

In addition to the genuine Renaissance-era music chosen for the program (we don’t know exactly what Drake’s violists played, but Gough selected reasonable facsimiles) are works composed especially for The World Encompassed by Gough himself such as Leaving Plymouth, Fortune My Foe, Port Desire, 180 Degrees, Terra Incognita and Java. The authentic period works interwoven throughout the program with Gough’s are such as The Song Called Trumpets by Robert Parsons (1535-72), In Nomine by John Taverner (1490-1545), and Fantasias by Luis de Milán (1500-61) and Alonso Mudarra (1510-80). There are also several anonymous hymns and psalms that further enhance the ambiance (Preserve Us O Lord, The Lamentation of a Sinner, The Humble Suit of a Sinner, etc.).

“This program is a single piece, divided into two, representing in musical terms Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe,” explains Fretwork’s Richard Boothby. “It’s difficult—no, impossible for us now, in 2010, to imagine how shocking such a clash of cultures was for musicians who had spent their entire lives playing and hearing just one style of music.

“But,” Boothby continues, “the beginnings of musical curiosity start here in 1577-80, when viol players who had been playing Parsons, Tallis, Tye and Byrd all their lives are suddenly confronted with a Javanese gamelan. And vice versa: Can we imagine what the Javanese gamelan players thought of the stark, severe Protestant hymns and psalms…?”

And how did it all end for Drake? As Boothby explains: “The Golden Hind (Drake’s flagship) was sent to Deptford where the queen came aboard. Drake was knighted aboard the ship, but the queen did not dub him herself, for fear of offending Philip of Spain, whom Drake had robbed so spectacularly. The wealth he brought back with him not only paid his backers handsomely, but repaid the national debt.”

Early Music Now and Fretwork entreat us to board once more the Golden Hind for this unique concert on Nov. 6 at UWM’s Helene Zelazo Center.