Indianapolis Early Music Festival: first weekend reviewed 

For 43 straight years, the Festival Music Society of Indiana has been running an early-music summer concert series - the longest in the U.S. Last Friday and Saturday, FMS artistic director Mark Cudek (SOOdek) began the 44th with two top-notch groups of musicians dedicated to the FMS charter: pre-1800 music (mostly). The Basile Opera venue, just half a block from NUVO's offices and a former church, now houses the Indianapolis Opera headquarters. It's a temporary, less worthy music-presenting location than the Indiana History Center, which is now undergoing a refurbishing.

On Friday, we had a five-member, all-female group calling themselves Reconstruction, with their noteworthy program title - "Bedlam, Back and Beyond" - referring to love in its various elements, many seemingly not all that positive. These attractive young women displayed an astonishing fecundity in songs and pieces from the late Renaissance/early Baroque period. In fact, speaking of fecundity, soprano (and Baroque guitarist) Elizabeth Ronan-Silva, being eight months pregnant, showed no compromise - with a presumably compressed diaphragm - in delivering the best solo of the evening, "Gelosia" ("Jealousy") by Luigi Rossi (1597-1653). Her vocal acrobatics were nothing short of astonishing, her sustained vocal modulation perfect for a song of this period. Ronan-Silva later soloed in Henry Purcell's "O Solitude," her voice a sweet lament. Were I not emotionally conditioned as a product of this rational age, I would have cried buckets.

Harpsichordist Holly Chatham, Baroque cellist Joanna Blenduff, soprano, and Renaissance guitarist Nell Snaidas and soprano Laura Heimes completed the Reconstruction five-some. The three sopranos sang together in a number of songs, all with perfect pitch and slight, well-matched modulation. They produced all the apropos moods in perfect, beautiful harmony, such as Purcell's "Bess of Bedlam," in which lovesick melancholy abounds.

As Cudek points out in his program notes, "bedlam" derives from the name of a 17th century English insane asylum, and these works convey a set of its acquired meanings: intense longing, wild jealousy, desperation and all-consuming passion. The verses suggesting passion seemed (not surprisingly) to engage the audience in a few chuckles, chortles and guffaws - e.g. "Yet no churl or silken gull / Shall my virgin blossom pull / Yes I'm sure what ere he be / Love he must or flatter me." from Rossi's "Lovers Come Play." Reconstruction included one contemporary piece, with more beautiful harmonies rendered therein, by Karen Hansen (b. 1963), "Heart! We will forget him!" set to verses by Emily Dickinson.

Nell Snaidas then remained overnight to be a part of Saturday's Ex Umbris, an equally impressive group of five early music performers - this time two women and three men. Their program's theme was an even more dour "Melancholy: Downe in the Dumpes in Elizabethan England." What we would now term depression was described as melancholy, a malady equally present - if not more so - in those days when there were fewer remedies. It was first celebrated (or commemorated, if you prefer) in song in a big way during Queen Elizabeth I's reign by composers like John Dowland, Thomas Ravenscroft, John Johnson and Thomas Campton, all from the latter 1500s.

Ex Umbris arranged its program in titled clusters of numbers, each apropos to a melancholy theme: "A Melancholy Dream," "A Cause: Poverty," "A Remedy: Drinking in Merry Company," "Another Cause: Love's Melancholy." A final "cause" was "Man's Sinful Nature," and the remedies: "O Metaphysical Tobacco," "Witchcraft" and "Sleep, The Balme of Woe." All of these (perhaps excepting witchcraft) strike a contemporary note, do they not?

This group added a number of instruments to those of the previous evening, including lutes, recorders, a Renaissance violin, viol and flute, a jaw harp and finally a pipe and tabor. Plus, all five played, sung and danced, including Karen Hansen, the composer heard the previous evening. Though these people emoted sadness in its many guises, they also evinced superlative playing and singing throughout.

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