Last night in the Old First Presbyterian Church, Voices of Music presented a special concert preceding its subscription season and inaugurating a new project called The Voice of the Viol. Program Director Adaiha MacAdam-Somer anticipates this as a series of concerts specializing in solo and ensemble music for the viola da gamba. To introduce the repertoire at last night’s concert, MacAdam-Somer assembled colleagues Joanna Blendulf on treble viol and Elizabeth Reed and Farley Pearce on bass viol, while she herself alternated between tenor viol and bass viol. They were joined by soprano Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist and lutenist David Tayler for a program that alternated between instrumental selections and consort songs
The program itself was structured symmetrically in four sections. The opening and closing sections featured Spanish composers from the sixteenth century, while the two inner sections focused on English composers who saw the transition into the seventeenth century. Any sense of national differences tended to be more evident in the songs, rather than the instrumental pieces; and one of the English composers, Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger, was the son of an Italian father (Alfonso Ferrabosco the elder), who did most of his composing in England. (The elder Ferrabosco was best known for bringing the Italian madrigal to England. He made periodic trips to Italy and may have served Queen Elizabeth I as a spy.)
The most salient trait of an assembly of viols, however, has less to do with repertoire and more with the warm qualities of common sonorities regardless of the registers in which those notes sound. The effect is a bit like that of a barbershop quartet (noting, with some regret, that this may be unfamiliar to many readers). There also tends to be a preference in the repertoire for homophony in which individual voices depart from the uniformity, each with its own characteristic embellishments. However, those departures give the sense that a consort of viols was not “wedded to the text” of notation. Such a group, therefore, engaged in practices of “jamming” that predated the spirited exchanges of jazz combos by several centuries. On the other hand, there is no shortage of impressive notated counterpoint; and, when the consort is a good one, the listener should be able to follow all the individual voices regardless of their common sonorous foundations.
Last night’s performers handled both homophony and polyphony with equal skill. The listener thus departed realizing that, while the overall sonorous effect may have a common ground, the repertoire itself has a generous amount of diversity, much of which allows for engagingly personal expression by each of the performers. There was also a pleasing sense that this was a gathering of players come together simply for the joy of making music in a relatively intimate setting where the audience tended to serve as welcome eavesdroppers. This was a social context in which one worked with the resources at hand. Thus, for example, while Orlando Gibbons composed “The Silver Swan” as a madrigal for five voices, the music held up just as well with Rosquist singing the soprano line while the viols gave instrumental accounts of the vocal parts for alto, tenor, baritone, and bass. (Indeed, given the ways in which Gibbons overlapped the text in the vocal parts, last night provided a clearer account of the words than is usually experienced!)
It is also worth noting that there was one significant departure from viol sonorities in the final section of the program. Tayler gave a solo lute account of the sixth pavan from the Libro de música de vihuela de mano intitulado El Maestro (book of vihuela music entitled “The Master”), compiled by vihuelista Luis de Milán and published in Valencia in 1536. The vihuela was the Spanish Renaissance forerunner of the guitar; but, again in the spirit of working with the resources at hand, Tayler gave a delightfully engaging account of Milán’s contrapuntal approach to one of the most stately of dances.