The consort music of Elizabethan England featured small ensembles of similar instruments performed for noble men and women in the comfort and intimacy of their homes. Nowadays chamber music is shared in public spaces, but the beautifully crafted interplay and musical conversation still speak to audiences small and sizable.
Upon the heels of a performance at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., LeStrange Viols will bring its fresh perspective on early chamber music to Johnson City to start the New Year with “sublime beauty” and a musical “labor of love.”
Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at ETSU will present LeStrange Viols in concert on Sunday, Jan. 29, at 6 p.m. at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 500 N. Roan St., Johnson City.
LeStrange Viols – which takes its name from a manuscript collection assembled by the 17th-century English nobleman Nicholas Lestrange – brings together six American viol players committed to crafting musical experiences full of vigor, passion and technical prowess. Inspired by the masterpieces of the viol consort repertoire, LeStrange combines the classic English consort tradition of the 17th century with a bold, imaginative approach to music from a broad array of times and places.
“We love the chance to discover and share music that hasn’t been heard for hundreds of years,” says LeStrange member Dr. Loren Ludwig. “Playing and listening to music from another age can offer a visceral connection to the people of that time, who were at the same time just like us (as humans who spoke English) and also so different in so many ways.
“That mixture of intimate familiarity and bracing strangeness is one of our favorite things about consort music.”
While the word “viol” may sound unfamiliar, as opposed to well-known instruments like violins and violas, viols are simply “cousins to the modern string family, [that] produce dainty sounds that blend together with the utmost euphony when played well,” says Robert Battey of the Washington Post. And LeStrange Viols plays these period instruments in a way that is “clearly a labor of love for the musicians,” he says.
Fellow viol player Dr. Lee Bidgood, faculty member in ETSU’s Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies, compares a viol consort, or ensemble, to a group of siblings singing together.
Played at lower than modern 440 pitch, the viol consort – or group of instruments from the same family – offers a wide palette of colors, Ludwig says. “A consort of viols offers a unique and uniquely satisfying sound,” he says, “in which the individual instruments create a warm blend while also maintaining their own distinctive ‘voices.’ ”
LeStrange Viols, which was formed in 2014 to record the modern premiere of William Cranford’s consort music, features the treble, tenor and bass members of the viola da gamba (or viol) family. Ludwig and John Mark Rozendaal perform on treble viol, Kivie Cahn-Lipman and James Waldo on tenor viol, Zoe Weiss on tenor and bass viols and Douglas Kelley on bass viol.
LeStrange’s debut CD, William Cranford Consort Music for 4,5 and 6 Viols, made the New Yorker’s list of notable recordings of 2015. It was the first recording of those experimental “complex, lyric inventions,” says newfocusrecordings.com. Huffington Post calls it “…a polyphonic conversance among viols.”
“The Cranford music they have re-introduced may seem obscure,” says Bidgood, who was in school with Ludwig at University of Virginia. “You probably don’t know who Cranford is, but it’s amazing music and what they’re doing is bringing it out into the world …
“Early music practice in this ensemble follows the same approach as in ETSU’s Old Time music program. They may look at field recordings made in Kentucky in the 1930s and think about that historical setting, and then perform the music in a way that is informed by that background and knowledge. There are a lot of similarities in dealing with older repertoire in the classical tradition, bringing it alive by reconsidering it with a deeper additional context. And – it’s really beautiful.”
On the program for the Johnson City concert is a mix of some of the group’s favorite pieces from the consort repertory, as well as selections from LeStrange Viols’ upcoming recording project, music from an important but little known manuscript, referred to as “31390,” dating from about 1580, the middle of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign.
“We’re excited to share the beautiful pieces from the 31390 manuscript, because they have, in many cases, rarely (if ever) been performed in modern times,” Ludwig says. “We’ll be recording these pieces later in the year and we’ve found that it’s very important to perform music as part of the preparation for recording … The other pieces on the program are some of our favorites because we find them particularly fun to play.
“Consort music is all about the musical ‘conversation’ between the parts and the players, and we try to highlight that aspect of the repertory in our programming.”
Members of LeStrange Viols have been featured performers with ACRONYM, Arcadia Viols, Amherst Early Music Festival, The Newberry Consort, Folger Consort, The King’s Noyse, Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, Trio Settecento, The Oberlin Consort of Viols, Helios Opera, Quaver, Hesperus, Sonnambula, New York Consort of Viols, Parthenia, Trinity Baroque Orchestra and Brandywine Baroque.
Although the music may not be as familiar as Bach or Mozart, the experience should be exciting for the audience and the musicians, Ludwig says.
“One of the best parts of playing the viola da gamba and performing consort music is introducing audiences to less familiar sounds and repertories …” he says. “Consort music is beautifully crafted and invites listeners to follow the interplay of parts and the musical conversation between musicians. But it can also be great music to just close your eyes and float in!”
While here, LeStrange musicians also will work with ETSU students from the Department of Music, as well as Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies. The opportunities provided by the visit are as unique as the music, says Anita DeAngelis, director of Mary B. Martin School of the Arts. “In our region, there are very few opportunities to hear viol music, and our string and bluegrass students will have a unique chance to learn from these expert musicians.”
For more information on LeStrange Viols, visit www.lestrangeviols.org. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 seniors 60+ and $5 students of all ages. To purchase tickets online or for more information on Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, visit www.etsu.edu/martin or call 423-439-8587.