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Monday, Nov. 8, 2010

Fretwork’s Musical Voyage With ‘Sir Francis Drake’

Also: Chamber Music Milwaukee turns to film

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The Saturday evening concert at the Zelazo Center by the London ensemble Fretwork was historical in the truest sense. The program mixed old and new in an engrossing theme: The World Encompassed – Sir Francis Drake. The six-player viol group commissioned composer Orlando Gough to write music related to specific episodes of Drake’s perilous, British imperialist, round-the-world voyage of 1577-1580.  Like the journey, the music explored a new world.

Drake had a viol ensemble on board. It sometimes served as peace-making enchantment of the peoples encountered, some who had their own musical traditions. One can only imagine the bewilderment of both Europeans and natives at the sounds. Gough’s pieces were spelled by hymns, sometimes artlessly and charmingly sung by the ensemble, and 15th- and 16th-century British music. Beyond spiritual comfort, the hymns must have been a poignant reminder of home to the sailors so far at sea.

To hear period instruments at Fretwork’s high level of artistry tackle contemporary music was a revelation. Gough’s vivid, captivating score fully explores the musical and technical capabilities of viol playing. I was astonished at the sounds and range of expression from instruments generally thought to be limited in variety.

Early Music Now, presenter of the concert, has done an outstanding job of building a large, loyal audience. I was happy to be sitting among so many who listened so intently.

Earlier in the week in the same hall Chamber Music Milwaukee offered an intriguing program of chamber music by film composers. John Williams was prominently featured in three contrasting pieces. Clarinetist Todd Levy and pianist Jeannie Yu gave playful grace to “Viktor’s Tale” from The Terminal. Hornist Greg Flint’s beautiful high, sustained playing conjured thoughts of Miles Davis in Williams’ Nocturne, The Crimson Day Withdraws. Flutist Caen-Thomason Redus, oboist Margaret Butler and Yu delivered Malcolm Arnold’s Suite Bourgeoisie with stylish and witty flair. Romantic sweetness came from Erich Korngold’s Romance-Impromptu, played by cellist Stefan Kartman and Yu. The ebb and flow of Bernard Herrmann’s Souvenirs de Voyage, sensitively performed by Levy and the Arcas String Quartet, was a lesson in phrase-making.