Saturday, July 13, 2013

Early Music Festival: Wayward Sisters take on composers with issues

When your recording debut, the result of an early-music ensemble competition, focuses on one of the most cantankerous composers ever to set pen to paper, you can't be blamed for heralding it with a program titled "The Naughty List: Music of Braggarts, Hotheads, Curmudgeons and Snobs."

Wayward Sisters, an amiable American quartet, opened the final weekend of the 2013 Indianapolis Early Music Festival with a concert thus provocatively dubbed.  Even so, the title omits murder and lechery among the identifying aspects of the tone-poets sampled in the ensemble's dashing concert Friday at the Glick Indiana History Center.

Wayward Sisters' name comes from their "scattered lives," they say.
It's hard to read into music the personal characteristics of the men who make it, as members of the quartet invited us to do in program notes delivered from the stage. But they deserve respectful attention for suggesting that connection, because Wayward Sisters have spent a lot of  time in the spirit-company of Matthew Locke to assemble the contents of their contest-winning Naxos Records CD.

And just what manner of man was Mr. Locke? In "The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians,"  an extensive entry on Locke (1621-1677) rises to heights of sputtering alliteration in sketching the composer's character:  "Locke was vain, contentious and vindictive, a vigorous and vituperative crusader for musical causes,"  many of them centered on the superiority of English music. That was his saving grace, perhaps, but like many bad actors with one good trait, he exercised it in an alienating manner.

Though he was just one of eight composers represented in Friday's concert, Locke seemed to inform Wayward Sisters' overall presentation.  His Suite No. 6 in D major gave members Beth Wenstrom, baroque violin; Anne Timberlake, recorders; Anna Steinhoff, baroque cello, and John Lenti, theorbo, lots to do. The lines were independent and frisky in four linked movements. The soul of the work prizes textural adventurousness, yoked with difficulty to a common purpose.  Wayward Sisters made the work sound straightforward and well-mannered, however.

Musically, it was as innovator that Bellerofonte Castaldi was presented, in a theorbo solo by Lenti, Wayward's sole "brother."  His "Follia" is a demanding set of variations that showed off, among other theorbo characteristics, the contrast of the long-necked plucked string instrument's plangent low notes with the lute-like delicacy of its ornamented treble lines.

Each member of Wayward Sisters got a solo showcase. For violinist Wenstrom, it was William Brade's "Choral With Variations," supported by theorbo and cello.  Wenstrom's characterful playing revealed detectable flashes of the composer's feistiness. In life, the prickly creator of a wealth of dance music hopped from court employment to court employment; more than one variation in this piece seemed to be saying, in the words of a much more recent composer: "Take this job and shove it!"

Cellist Steinhoff, tightly coordinated with her accompanist (Lenti), presented a vivid portrait of Antonio Vivaldi's lofty self-esteem in the two-movement Sonata No. 3 in A minor. Tarquinio Merula, a litigious, concupiscent Italian, provided a showcase for Timberlake, again with Lenti accompanying. And she was just as clearly first among equals in the same composer's spirited "Ciacona," with which the full ensemble ended the first half.

Dario Castello is almost too obscure to be set in this naughty company, but his Sonata Duodecima gave an apt final demonstration of the Wayward Sisters' impeccable coordination and balance. Those qualities were more severely tested by a brace of "Ayres for the Violin" by Nicola Matteis. The music's willfulness, dynamic contrasts and changes of direction made it believable that part of Matteis' insufferable vanity was his insistence on complete attentive silence during his performances, a demand that his high-born listeners found unreasonable. What the man might have done about cellphone interruptions is scary to contemplate.

The short-lived, agreeable Henry Purcell was represented at the concert's outset with his Sonata VII in E minor, featuring the full ensemble. The typical dotted rhythms were precisely brought off, and the work had a pleasing finish over the final three movements — from the songlike Grave, which evoked Purcell's charming vocal style, then on to a Vivace that became more florid as it made the transition into a short, stately Adagio to conclude.

From Purcell, the character of the composers went downhill and remained there. As Timberlake told the audience about the construction of "The Naughty List": "The problem was not finding composers who were badly behaved, bur narrowing it down." Oh, how many entire festivals of this sort
could be put together from an all-inclusive list!