From Dowland to Monk, King's Noyse rules
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If the American early music scene has an all-star band, it's the King's Noyse. The ranks of this violin consort include expressive soprano Ellen Hargis, lute master Paul O'Dette and gifted violinist Robert Mealy, all among the elite in the field. Led by director David Douglass with Renaissance violin in hand, King's Noyse likes to regale audiences with the entertainment music of the 16th and 17th centuries: ballads and jigs instead of masses and sonatas.
But who knew the King could swing, too? Saturday, the ensemble visited Synod Hall to celebrate the Renaissance & Baroque's 40th anniversary. The King's Noyse has had a hand in the impressive life of this period-music series, appearing four earlier times.
This time Douglass came with a special gift. With former Chatham Baroque violinist Julie Andrijeski joining Shira Kammen on large Renaissance violas, the director gave a sort of greatest hits program that took an unexpected jump out of the far past to the blues and jazz of Gershwin, Bernstein and Thelonious Monk.
At first I thought it was gimmicky, a stretch to fill out the program "Olde, Newe, Borrow'd, Blue." But a few bow strokes into Mealy's solo in Gershwin's Prelude No. 2, I realized my prejudice was going to be roundly beaten.
Turns out, the Renaissance violin, with its short bow and neck, gut strings and light timbre is exceptionally suited for sliding between notes. Also this pre-tonal repertoire has given Mealy and Douglass plenty of experience in shading notes up or down.
The result was genuine, fully contemporary blues by instruments that emerged centuries earlier. Add to this Hargis' transformation into a chanteuse, coaxing along "Summertime," " 'Round Midnight" and "Some Other Time" with bell-like tone, and the effect was, well, right on. Even O'Dette caught the spirit, trading in his courtly repertoire for a delicate take on the Beatles' "Michelle."
Had the ensemble concluded just before the modern set, the concert still would have been one of the highlights of the year. The strings had a ravishing blend, backed by David Morris' stout bass violin, a mellower ancestor of the cello which he played standing up. But rhythm was the primary concern, leading to lively dances -- although the best was a bit less so -- a somber "Funeral Jigg." Douglass included Byrd's martial crowd-pleaser (then and now) "The Battel," as well as Dowland's "Fine Knacks for Ladies."
Hargis not only conveyed the meaning of lyrics and sang with an unaffected, bright timbre, but she also freely maneuvered in her high range. In the ballad "Barbara Allen's Cruelty" or the songs "When May is in his Prime" and "O Death, Rock Me Asleep," she effortlessly glided into the upper register. This lent an attractive natural character to her delivery and transported this music wonderfully to the modern ear.
O'Dette, while occasionally over-powered by the ensemble, strummed heartily on the dances and gave a sensitive performance of Dowland's virtuosic "Chromatic Fantasie."
First Published February 2, 2009 12:00 am