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April 11, 2000

Baltimore Consort

A Review by Pat and Ernie Pinson

Ending the season with a change from the string quartets of the last three concerts, the Mobile Chamber Music Society presented the Baltimore Consort on Sunday, April 2. This group of four brought string instruments of a different type -- cittern, viols, lute, bandora and rebec -- to the stage along with a set of clear soprano vocal cords. And the ballad program was from merrye olde England (and Scotland), and Appalachia (the richest source of Elizabethan and later English folk songs during the early 20th century.) The Consort did works from the 16th through the 20th century -- some were Civil War songs, some were from 19th century hymnals, some were only for the instruments, and some for soprano alone. Whatever the medium, they were done vividly and well.

Often billed as a Renaissance group, the Baltimore Consort has performed over the world and produced several CDs. Long a fan of their Bright Day Star album, I found them to be as exhilarating and clear in their live performance as on their recordings. The digital miracle masters donít have much to do to improve this group!

Ballads are so different from the more standard classical repertoire, but if you listen, you discover a heritage which is just as rich and demanding. Soprano Custer LaRue has the clear light quality and uncanny flexibility of voice which must recall the early oral tradition of the bards and the anticipation of their performances. She can tell a 16-verse story with such animation that you hang on every note. She negotiated some difficult tunes outlining chords, drops of an octave, and disjunct melodies. Yet her quality was the same in the high and low registers and the voice moved with apparent ease.

Some of the ballads were very syncopated (one had a 5 beat meter), but the harmonic structure was usually deceptively simple (one ballad used only I and IV chords throughout - the Amen cadence). The richness and complexity lay in the lines floating above. Simple lines are transformed with improvisation and embellishments just like blues and jazz use now.

The beautifully crafted wooden instruments were almost equally at home alone as solo instruments or as part of the group. The bass viol, the largest, was perhaps the most versatile. The strings were sometime hit percussively, the wood was thumped, it was strummed across the neck, and it could be plucked or bowed like a cello.

The audience was captivated and gave such an ovation that the group gave an encore from their Bawdy Ballad CD -- which was pretty bawdy and very funny. A marvelous Sunday afternoon!


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