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Group makes merry music from Shakespeare’s time

By Eric E. Harrison

This article was published February 7, 2013 at 3:08 a.m.

— Lutenist Ronn McFarlane is bridging a centuries-old musical gap.

He plays Renaissance and Baroque music, from the 15th through the 18th centuries, but, more than a dozen years into the 21st century, he has also been writing and recording new music for his instrument.

In the former role, he’ll play lute alongside Mary Anne Ballard, viols and rebec; Mark Cudek, cittern, viols and Renaissance guitar; Larry Lipkis, viols and recorder; Mindy Rosenfeld, flute, recorder, whistle, crumhorn and early harp; and “guest artist,” soprano Danielle Svonavec as part of The Baltimore Consort, at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Little Rock’s Christ Episcopal Church.

McFarlane was one of the founding members when the group started up in 1980 to perform the instrumental music of Shakespeare’s time. “We’re still doing the same thing and still enjoying it,” he says.

“Musick’s Silver Sound: Heavenly Harmony and Earthly Delight in Shakespeare’s England” will feature music from Shakespeare’s plays, including Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, The Tempest, The Merry Wives of Windsor and As You Like It, “and some music from his time that might have been played as incidental music,” McFarlane says.

“The sort of group we are, often called a ‘broken consort’ or a ‘mixed’ consort, is the kind of band that Shakespeare very likely would have had. Shakespeare’s stage band would have played incidental music connected to the action, as well as playing general music during breaks.”

Many of Shakespeare’s stage directions call for trumpets and hautbois (pronounced “oboes”); McFarlane is pretty certain that there would have been lutes and citterns onstage as well (for example, one of Bianca’s suitors disguises himself as a lute teacher in The Taming of the Shrew) that actors would have used to accompany themselves in the songs embedded in the Bard’s scripts.

It’s a mistake, he says, to think of the music of that period as staid and stiff. “I think it has more in common with folk music, with older forms of popular music that have a lot of rhythm,” he explains. “It has a lot of directness of expression and also has the chance for on-the-spot improvisation.”

And it’s in keeping with what’s known about the spirit of those times, he adds. For example, surviving Elizabethan recipes “tended to be very strong flavors, combining interesting things. And the kinds of things that they wore, at Queen Elizabeth’s court - suits with orange or purple as the main color or the trim, and they would dye their beards orange or purple [to match]. Yes, it does sound like an Elizabethan punk rock scene.

“There was a desire to push the stylistic or artistic envelope without seeming foolish, without making buffoons of themselves. I think they were much less stiff,less staid than many later generations. I think the time of Shakespeare was a time of great earthiness and humor and color.

“In the Baltimore Consort, as we immerse ourselves in the music, we try to become the kind of musicians that would have made that music. Not just to play what’s written on the page - in fact, the music on the page is generally in skeletal form, and any skilled musician was expected to fill that out in a satisfying, interesting, maybe even a compelling way. We have to learn to be arrangers and improvisers ourselves.”

Though the most recent of his more than 30 recordings (with and without the Baltimore Consort) is 2012’s Two Lutes: Lute Duets From England’s Golden Age, with William Simms, McFarlane has two albums of his own compositions: 2009’s IndigoRoad and 2010’s One Morning, featuring Ayreheart, an ensemble McFarlane brought together to perform his new music.

“I do write some of my own things,” he explains. “On the one hand it doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense, because the lute has one of the largest instrumental repertories of any instrument; there are more than 40,000 pieces that survive from the 16th to 18th centuries.

“But at some point along the way, I really grew kind of a desire to write new music for the lute that not only embodied old styles, Renaissance and Baroque music, but also let in modern influences as well.

“It has really been an interesting journey for me, not just been a lot of fun but also has given me a new perspective on the old music, and has allowed me to play the old music with perhaps a little more freedom and imagination than I might have otherwise.”The Baltimore Consort

7:30 p.m. Friday, Christ Epis

copal Church, 509 Scott St.

(at Capitol Avenue), Little

Rock. Mary Anne Ballard,

viols and rebec; Mark Cu

dek, cittern, viols and Re

naissance guitar; Ronn Mc-

Farlane, lute; Larry Lipkis,

viols and recorder; Mindy

Rosenfeld,◊ute, recorder,

whistle, crumhorn and ear

ly harp; soprano Danielle

Svonavec

Tickets: $25, $15 for stu

dents

(501) 537-1698

Weekend, Pages 34 on 02/07/2013

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