Music City Baroque is presenting a program this weekend that would have been music to the ears of William Shakespeare. The program, titled “Fairest Isle,” features English chamber music and songs from the late Elizabethan era through the Restoration. This is the kind of music – often played on lute and viola da gamba – that the Bard himself would have enjoyed listening to at his favorite theaters and taverns.
“This is the kind of program we’ve wanted to play for a long time,” says George Riordan, who plays Baroque oboe for the ensemble. “The music is all exquisitely beautiful.”
At first blush, the program’s title would seem to be something of a misnomer. There was nothing especially fair and merry about England during this period. The 17th century was an age of regicide, revolution and dictatorship. Secular musicians, in particular, often found themselves at the bottom of the heap during Cromwell’s protectorate, which placed puritanical bans on music and theater as immoral activities. (Cromwell, of course, had no moral qualms about having his enemies hanged, drawn and quartered.)
That said, the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660 led to a remarkable flowering of art and music in England. That age’s greatest blossom was Henry Purcell (1659-1695), the foremost composer of his time and arguably the greatest England ever produced. Music City Baroque barrowed its program title – “Fairest Isle” – from Purcell’s best-known air, the goddess Venus’ unforgettably gorgeous solo from Act 5 of King Arthur. Not surprising, Purcell is well-represented on the ensemble’s program this Sunday afternoon.
Purcell was the supreme craftsman when it came to setting 16th– and 17th-century English verse to music – no composer has ever done greater justice to Shakespeare, no doubt because he had the Bard’s English in his ear. The terrific Nashville-based soprano Terri Richter and lute virtuoso Francis Perry will perform one of his songs, “While Thirsis, wrapp’d in downy sleep,” a tune that has a passion that seems completely contemporary. Music City Baroque will also perform one of Purcell’s great chamber pieces, the Trio Sonata in G major for Two Violins and Basso Continuo.
Sunday’s concert will feature a couple of other chamber pieces – Christopher Simpson’s Division on “John Come Kiss Me Now” for lute and Baroque cello (with Perry and cellist Christopher Stenstrom) along with a Trio Sonata by Jean-Baptiste Loeillet, a Flemish composer known as “John of London.” A performance of Matthew Locke’s Orchestral Dances for Shakespeare’s The Tempest will round out the program.
“The Orchestral Dances will be the big piece on the program,” says Riordan, “and it’s going to be exciting.”
If you go
Music City Baroque presents “Fairest Isle,” music from 17th-century England at 3 p.m. Sunday Sept. 30 at Woodmont Christian Church, 3601 Hillsboro Pike. The program is free. For additional information, go to www.musiccitybaroque.org.