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Monday, Nov. 19, 2012

Spanning Cultures and Centuries

Alba Consort Crisscrosses the Mediterranean

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It was a Medieval and Renaissance journey around the Mediterranean with the Alba Consort at Wisconsin Lutheran College on Saturday, presented by Early Music Now. The name of the New York based ensemble comes from a troubadour genre of a lover’s morning song.

The four member group was comprised of mezzo-soprano Margo Gezairlian Grib (who also plays vielle), percussionist Rex Benincasa (who also sings and plays the hurdy-gurdy), Carlo Valte on oud (a fretless forerunner of the guitar) and lutenist Christopher Morrongiello. Alone and in combination, all are excellent and enthralling musicians.

The wide-ranging sampler program spanned several centuries, covering Spanish, Italian, Moroccan, Sephardic and Cyprian music, both from composed and folk traditions, with a nod to France. Perhaps the breadth of topics and eras was a little too ambitious. The aim of showing interactive regional influences was not as focused as it might have been. The inclusion of something by Guillaume DuFay seemed especially a stretch. However, each piece, whatever it was, was undeniably justified in its artful and lively rendering.

Gerzairlian Grib’s singing showed chameleon adaptation to the style of a song, from ethereal white sounds to chesty robustness. Morrongiello played a set of lute pieces by Francesco Canova da Milano with sensitivity and masterful technique. Valte took center stage with several captivating solos, some of which were apparently improvised. Benincasa’s extroverted and colorful presence came through in amazingly imaginative drum solos and in idiomatic singing of Arabic folk songs.

With a great deal of pre-Baroque music, and certainly with folk music, arrangement is a necessary aspect. Alba Consort’s arrangements were at times appropriately restrained, and at other times elaborate and daring, emphasizing rhythmic drive and energy. Some of the improvised solos seemed of the same cloth as jazz. The finale, an extended arrangement of two Sephardic folksongs, was an exciting showpiece, demonstrating the core musical identity of the ensemble.

In the past I have stated admiration of Early Music Now’s cultivation of a sizable and loyal audience, but it certainly bears mentioning again. And I very much enjoy EMN's preference for 5 p.m. Saturday concerts.