There was anticipation in the air Saturday night at International House here in Hyde Park as a substantial audience formed to hear the Newberry Consort. There was also a warm and sunny feeling among the crowd. They had gathered knowing that this would be the last Hyde Park concert for David Douglass and Ellen Hargis as co-directors of the group. (Their final concert would be the following night in Evanston.)
The Newberry Consort was founded 35 years ago, and for the past 15 years this husband and wife team has led the group with panache and imagination, creating memorable events with music that delights and stagings that are historically informed, yet contain contemporary elements that remind us of the humane themes that transcend time.
Saturday’s event was a corker that drew upon the many threads that Douglass and Hargis have weaved throughout their leadership: top musicians, well-chosen music and interesting approaches to performance.
The first segment of the event featured a suite of sinfonias by Marco Uccellini, taken from his collection “Sinfonie boscareccie” (Woodland Symphonies). Although the string and harpsichord ensemble, placed on the floor just in front of the raised I-House stage, was hard to see from the back of the house, their sound was clearly articulated throughout the evening. The music was selected to set a mood for the second part of the performance, and it did the job well. A bucolic and innocent setting was established, with Uccellini’s Sinfonia No. 34 particularly full of expectation, containing a slow build that warmed up like a sunrise. As one had come to expect from Douglass (that night on viola), the ensemble was well-balanced and well-oiled.
This was followed by “La Civetta” (The Owl), which Ellen Hargis’s program notes tells us was an intermezzo written to be performed within a serious five-act opera about Saint Boniface. To fill out the intermezzo, the Newberry Consort took some of the music from the opera to create an instrumental introduction as well as some dance music at the end.
The results were marvelous. “La Civetta” is written for four sopranos (originally sung by castrati) and the four singers — Ellen Hargis, Allison Selby Cook, Lucia Mier y Teran Romero, and Salome Sandoval — jumped into the music with a large dose of good-natured fun. The ladies tumbled onto the stage in hunting lodge gear with Hargis marvelously decked out, rather like the Marge Gunderson character from “Fargo,” and her cohorts were equally quirky.
But it was their singing that captivated you more than anything else. The women were able to convey the technical aspects of the performance and the beauty of the music, all while strolling through the lodge interacting with each other. It was delightful.
After the intermission, Daniel Swenberg on mandolin and Brandon Acker on theorbo took on Giovanni Battista Sammartini’s Sonata in G Major for mandolin. The visual spectacle was amusing, as the baroque mandolin was tiny and the theorbo had a magnificently long neck, but the two instrumentalists were perfect together, mixing sound and texture with flair and skill, bringing the sparkling music to life.
This was followed by the entire instrumental ensemble taking on Antonio Caldara’s “Chiacona,” which immediately introduced a gorgeous melody to grab your attention. The treble lines soared while the bass lines achieved heft. It was a fitting work to lead into the final performance of the evening, Caldara’s “Il Giuoco del Quadriglio” (The Game of Quadrille).
The four sopranos returned to star in this delightful picture of a game, not merely of cards but of distracting table talk as well. Whether in playing a particular card or making a particular pointed remark, the ladies played the game marvelously. The work was given added interest by the dancing of Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière, who sported one long yellow sock and one long blue sock (the Ukrainian colors) as well as a recorder. She added both elegance and humor. This is the kind of work that Newberry has done so well under Douglass and Hargis: music with instruments and voices that is given a relaxed theatrical approach that includes dancing and other movement as well as a sense of place. It was a wonderful way to remember the work of two of Chicago’s leaders in the early music field.
Speaking with Douglass after the performance, he reminded me that the Newberry Consort has important Hyde Park roots. It was Howard Mayer Brown, he told me, who urged the Newberry Library to form a performing group because the library had such an extensive collection of music.
Only hours later I was again at I-House, this time for the Chicago Ensemble Sunday afternoon concert. The Chicago Ensemble is made up of a large number of musicians and for each concert a small subset of that group perform. Sunday’s concert was to feature flute, clarinet, violin, and piano, but at the last minute the flutist was unavailable. In spite of this, founder and artistic director Gerald Rizzer got to work and created a program for clarinet, violin, and piano instead. Rizzer at the piano was joined by Daniel Williams on clarinet and Jaime Gorgojo on violin.
Darius Milhaud’s 1937 Suite for clarinet, violin, and piano opened with a playful melody resembling a child’s song. But it was the final movement (by far the longest of the four) that offered the most drama and theatricality and the trio meandered marvelously through the various melodies making up the finale.
Gorgojo and Rizzer teamed up for Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K. 303, offering a sweet and lyrical approach. Gorgojo displayed beautiful restraint and Rizzer moved up and down the keyboard with the lightness of a butterfly.
Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke seemed a perfect choice for the Chicago Ensemble, and the music is indeed glorious. Clarinetist Williams seemed at times a bit tentative and uncertain, yet rose to the occasion, notably with beautiful ascending passages in the middle section.
Gian Carlo Menotti’s Trio for clarinet, violin, and piano had whimsy, sweep, and gentle energy. The final fugue was engrossing. Alban Berg’s Adagio from his 1925 Chamber Concerto (in a transcription by the composer for clarinet, violin, and piano) was thoughtful and highlighted the mysterious and introspective elements of the work.
All in all, International House proved to be the place for music this past weekend, and it was a delight to see Hyde Parkers old and young, as well as visitors from all around the city, at one of our neighborhood’s important venues to enjoy music.