Monday, March 19, 2012

The Newberry Consort (and Friends)

David Douglass and Ellen Hargis Show Dazzling Versatility

Newberry Consort, David Douglass & Ellen Hargis, co-directorsI have only discovered the Newberry Consort recently, meaning that although I knew of the name I never knew exactly what they did or nor had I experienced any of their performances. Now, after exposure to three of their remarkable presentations I am beginning to gain an appreciation of just what these artists are capable of giving us and the enjoyable journeys the lead through the span of several hundred years of early music.

Miracles, anyone?

First I attended Rosa das Rosas, a work in honor of the Virgin Mary commissioned by Alfonso X, a twelfth-century king of Castille, León and Galicia. The performance was accompanied by interesting visuals prepared to compliment the early music. The venue, St. Michael in Old Town, with its white and gold icons and imagery, was a stunning accompaniment to music that was, in essence, a token of gratitude for divine intervention.

Ellen Hargis
This was largely a vocal presentation with the solos of soprano Ellen Hargis soaring high into the nave of St. Michael in a flight of memorable beauty that mimicked the grateful King’s prayers of thanks.

Cloistered Gloom

My second experience moved from the courts of kings to the baroque convents of Italy and Mexico. Further, this was an “all woman” concert. All vocalists and instrumentalists were women with Consort co-Artistic Director Ellen Hargis leading the performers through a program that was composed and arranged by the women who populated these early religious institutions. For this performance I traveled to Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park. Rockefeller Chapel is a dreary place after sundown. The combination of darkened windows, subdued lighting and the music of these early convents invoked a solemn and somber mood for the evening.

Despite the subdued mood of the performance the experience was exhilarating. The single-sex presentation leaves an entirely different impression than does one of a mixed set of voices. It is not surprising that for the great 19th century composer Johannes Brahms, composing for his beloved women’s chorus was a favorite diversion. Hargis had her female companions on this journey well-rehearsed and coalesced into a stunning ensemble.

The Court of Ferrara

Piffaro the Renaissance Band
My most recent exposure to Newberry Consort versatility was again at the Rockefeller Chapel. This time it was a brilliant day and the sun shone through the windows of the nave prompting an entirely different perspective on life and the music that was presented. The Newberry Consort partnered for this special concert (an event presented in addition to their regular season offerings) with The King’s Noyse and Piffaro, the renaissance Band to present a concert of music from the late 16th century city of Ferrara, Italy. Consort co-Director Ellen Hargis provided the only vocal solos while co-Director David Douglass (also director of The King’s Noyse) performed instrumentally playing a Renaissance-style violin.

Douglass explains that the term noyse "...was only used for professional violinists, as in The King's Noyse. When violinists played with wind instruments at court, it was often referred to as the whole noyse. In the early 17th c. thomas Mace said the violin made a 'high-priz'd noyse fit to make a man's Ear Glow, and fill his brains full of frisks.'"

The effect of the timbres of the combined instrumentation was stunning. Besides the set (noyse) of Renaissance violins and Piffaro’s seemingly limitless access to drums, recorders, bagpipes, sackbuts, shawms, dulcians, krumhorns, lutes and guitars (many in several sizes) the superb vocal talents of Ellen Hargis soared above the musical accompaniments into the vaulted nave of Rockefeller. The oveall effect of this eclectic collection of instruments and the single superb voice of Hargis is not to be underestimated. The passions in the lyrics are also something of a marvel. Here is but one example:

Grievous martyrdoms, fierce torments, harsh fetters, evil snares, rough chains, where I night and day, every hour, every moment miserable lament my lost well-being; sad voices, complaints, cries and laments, tears shed and eternal afflictions are my nourishment and the treasured tranquility of my life, more bitter than any wormwood. Trans. Anthony Newcomb

Instrumentally there was great variety as might be expected given the vast array of instrumentation available. The entire performance, instrumental and vocal passed far too quickly and finished with what can only be described as a Renaissance hoe-down of some of the happiest music one might imagine at the court of Ferrara in the late 16th century. Even, or perhaps especially, the musicians were having a great and enjoyable time. Maybe that’s why the audience had a great time as well.


My initial contact with The Newberry Consort was as a pro bono consultant working through the Arts & Business Council of Chicago. In that capacity I got to know some of the artistic and administrative talent behind the organization. It has turned out to be one of the better experiences of my administrative career and I count my exposure to early music through The Newberry Consort as one of the more valuable experiences of my artistic career.

Here I have tried to present the range of experiences I had while attending Newberry Consort performances. While I was initially somewhat puzzled by the first performance I attended, wondering if I could become interested in a program series comprised of programs exactly like the one I had experienced, I quickly discovered that Consort co-Artistic Directors Douglass and Hargis are far more interesting and capable than a one-trick pony. They possess a knowledge of early music that is both deep and broad and the variety of musical experience available at their carefully programmed presentations is some of the richest I have experienced for a number of years. Further, the music presented represents the foundations on which our present musical heritage is based, making it both accessible and informative as well as artistically satisfying.

If you’re looking for something different that will gently coax you to come back for more, try The Newberry Consort. They are one-of-a-kind and the musical artistry is of the highest caliber.

For more information, see their website: The Newberry Consort Home

This entry has been updated by correcting some spelling errors and by replacing my original text with Douglass's comments about the origins of the word noyse to correctly reflect the etymology of the word.

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