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Review: The Theatre of Music (Ensemble 642)

Live Reviews - Classical Music | Chamber

Review: The Theatre of Music (Ensemble 642)

by Tony Way on June 16, 2017 (June 16, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Chamber | Comment Now
★★★½☆ A welcoming evening of friendly music making in an ornate setting.

Medley Hall, Carlton
June 14, 2017

It is a happy coincidence that the venue for this Ensemble 642 concert, an imposing Victorian pile in the high Italianate style, is named Benvenuta or “welcome”, and that the opening number in the programme was Welcome every guest by John Blow. Ensemble 642, a group of young early music devotees, did indeed have a welcoming air as it presented this hour-long exploration of 17th-century English consort and vocal music.

Lutenist Nicholas Pollock’s laconic sense of humour set the mood well, in comparing the vocal music on the programme to the winter weather: if it fines up too much, you know something is wrong. Such a comment does capture something of the cheerful melancholy that has suffused much English music since.

Ensemble 642Ensemble 642's Hannah Lane and Nicholas Pollock

On this occasion the ensemble was joined by Melbourne-born tenor, Daniel Thomson, who is currently based in London and studying at the Schola Cantorum in Basel. Thomson’s fine, light instrument is a joy to listen to. At the centre of the programme was his accomplished performance (from memory) of Hero’s Complaint to Leander, an extended work by Nicholas Lanier (1588-1666), Master of the King’s Music for Charles I. Set in the fashionable new stile rappresentivo (think a little of Monteverdi’s Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda), this dramatic work was an excellent musical vehicle for Thomson. Clarity, agility and textual empathy were all displayed in abundance.

Ensemble 642 also entered into the musical fray with vigour; perhaps a little too much vigour at some points where their collective energy came close to overwhelming the voice, particularly in its lower reaches. Nonetheless, the overall impression was one of friends enjoying each other’s musical company and that is no bad thing.

Various dance movements and ayres by Matthew Locke and William Lawes allowed members of the ensemble (Elizabeth Welsh, violin; Laura Moore, viol; Hannah Lane, harp and Pollock on lute) to demonstrate their affinity with the English baroque style in which there was much attention to rhythmic buoyancy and setting of mood. Laura Moore’s touching playing in Tobias Hume’s solo piece, Harke, harke showed fine technique and musicianship.

Interleaved with the instrumental works were a number of songs that touched on a number of the period’s main themes. Unrequited love looms large, of course. What is it about trees and lovesick men? William Lawes’s I’m sick of love is sung not to a plane tree (thank you, Mr Handel) but to a sycamore. Thomas Morley’s A Painted Tale and Henry Lawes’s Bid me but love express similar sentiments but without horticultural attachments.

Thomson convincingly related all these melancholic emotions, but was equally at home in more optimistic utterances. Blow’s Welcome every guest was quietly yet confidently delivered as was Lanier’s Mark how the blushful morn. The closing set of the programme saw further vocal and expressive blossoming in the works of Purcell. Music for a while did our cares beguile and the bold Song upon a ground raised a few smiles and maybe a few eyebrows. Strike up the viol, the fifth movement from Come, ye sons of art, Purcell’s 1694 birthday ode for Queen Mary, provided a joyous encore.

The ornate front parlour of Benvenuta (since the middle of last century a residential hall in the University of Melbourne) is an apt venue for this sort of domestic music making. Comfortably accommodating about 40 people, no one is too far away from the action. Being so close to the music is also a timely reminder that the sound world of recordings is highly idealised and rarely reflects the reality of most performances. What audiences may miss in terms of perfect balance and blend is more than compensated by the opportunity to be part of the vital human interaction of sharing music. May Ensemble 642 keep putting out the welcome mat. 

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