Folger Consort moves to St. Mark’s for medieval Christmas celebration

Sat Dec 11, 2021 at 12:17 pm

Emily Noël was the vocal soloist in the Folger Consort’s Christmas program Friday night at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

The reassuring rituals of the classical music season are slowly returning in the wake of the pandemic. For its first live performances since March 2020, the Folger Consort revived its annual Christmas concert Friday night. 

The theme each season is different, and this year the early music ensemble offered some holiday comfort food, medieval music from England, Aquitaine, Catalonia, and Italy. (The Folger Consort’s New Year’s concert at Washington National Cathedral, last heard in February 2020, will not return this year.)

One of the delights of this yearly tradition is the experience of hearing music in the Elizabethan Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where the halls are always decked in holiday splendor. With the building under renovation until 2023, this year’s concerts are  taking place in the nave of nearby St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. Under a row of glowing candles on the grand north windows behind the performers, the effect was at least as charming as its home.

The program skewed toward the rustic rather than the liturgical, mirrored in the selection of accompanying instruments. In “Natus est rex,” a monophonic piece from St. Martial in Limoges, the aptly named Emily Noël sang the unmetered melody with a clear, plangent soprano. Vielles, harp, and tenor recorder accompanied with a simple drone and figuration derived from the melody.

In a second piece from the same manuscript, “Noster cetus psallat letus,” paired recorders took the two intertwined polyphonic lines, played with entrancing softness by artistic director Robert Eisenstein and guest wind player Dan Meyers. The recorder duo also gave pleasing rhythmic drive to another instrumental selection, Ave caro, while Meyers excelled in a solo moment, with florid musicality on an instrumental version of a Benedicamus Domino.

Meyers added more exotic instrumental touches to the second set, pieces drawn from 13th-century English sources. His mellow sound on the ocarina extended the otherwise short “Miri it is,” shadowing and building on Noël’s singing of the old English text, accompanied by the other artistic director, Christopher Kendall, on medieval harp. After some extensive tuning, instrumental versions of “Angelus ad virginem” alternated with the shining soprano on some of this famous Advent tune’s verses. Meyers enlivened other instrumental selections with turns on mouth harp and bright sopranino recorder.

The Italian counterpart to these more popular, folk-influenced sacred works is the lauda, featured in the third set. Meyers, taking up the medieval bagpipe, gave metered propulsion to an instrumental rendition of “Cristo è nato.” The third lauda of the set, “Gloria ‘n cielo e pace in terra,” kept this feel of dance-like rhythms, matched by the rough-hewn scratching of a rebec and the reinforcing pulse of drum and tambourine.

The interpretation of the middle lauda of the set, “Da ciel venne messo novello,” hewed more to the unmetered notation found in the source, giving it a solemn, chant-like beauty. Noël and Meyers, now singing rather than playing, traded off on the verses as if they were the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel in the Annunciation dialogue it set. The moment of the conception of Jesus, where Noël’s Mary sang “Etco l’ancilla,” was left unaccompanied, a stark moment that enhanced the power of the piece.

More complex harmony and polyphonic interplay rounded out the evening in the final set, featuring music from 15th-century England. Noël’s limpid soprano was a delight to hear, especially when exposed with minimal accompaniment, as with just two citoles in “Nowell, Nowell: Dieu vous garde.” Medieval string specialist Mary Springfels provided both melodic interest and an anchoring presence beneath Meyers’ recorder in instrumental selections.

Noël had her most agile and demanding moments in the sublime “There Is No Rose,” her voice turning flexibly through long, ornamented phrases with effortless breath support, accompanied austerely by the harp. 

In the final selection, “Nowell Sing We,” a poignant reference to God rescuing his people from illness (“Out of disease he did us dight”) likely meant not only the plague of sin but the actual plague, the Black Death that swept across England in regular waves in this period. Attentive listeners were inevitably drawn back into the present, but with the hopeful assurance that we too will survive.

This program runs through December 18.; 202-544-7077

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