Monday, July 1, 2013

Getting down with Dowland: La Nef and tenor Michael Slattery grace the Early Music Festival

As La Nef founding member Sylvain Bergeron told the audience, a threesome of instrumental pieces in the middle of its concert's first half Sunday was the program's brief indulgence in happy music. "Will Kempe's Jig," "Mistress Winter's Jump" and "My Lady Hunsdon's Puffe" followed in quick succession, with the last-named piece capped by the sopranino recorder's ornamented melody.

But though its manner is breezy and animated, the Montreal-based ensemble focused on the English lutenist-composer John Dowland in his characteristic mood of melancholy.  Shakespeare's contemporary, a Catholic said to be bitter about lack of preferment at court because of his religion, achieved a strong international reputation with lute songs, many of them loaded with lovelorn hand-wringing.

A peculiar English piece known as the dump had largely expired by Dowland's time, but in the alliterative spirit of a program titled "Dowland in Dublin," the composer was characteristically down in the dumps when he took pen in hand to set verses for singing. Even without texts, his creative juices flowed best when he turned to the stately pavan, a form receptive to sad thoughts. They coursed through his veins more robustly when he took up its perky northern Italian cousin, the galliard.

Those dance forms were both in evidence in La Nef's  Early Music Festival concert at the Glick Indiana History Center. A solo lute piece, "Lacrimae pavan," given a soulful, nuanced reading by Bergeron, made an effective prelude to "Come,  heavy sleep," featuring the dulcet lyric tenor of Michael Slattery.  Throughout the program, the urgent expressivity of Slattery's singing never roughened his mellifluous tone and phrasing, even when he was called upon to simulate the throes of the thwarted passion ("Sleep, wayward thoughts").

Michael Slattery's well-schooled, expressive voice was featured.
La Nef in this project fancifully places Dowland in Dublin, though Grove's Dictionary slaps down one long-ago writer's claim the composer was born there rather than in the City of Westminster. What the songs' arrangements (mostly by cittern player Sean Dagher) aim for is the atmosphere of an Irish pub.  The sedate, softspoken quality of most of what La Nef played made this imaginative stretch a little difficult, to be sure. But it was obvious that a largely successful attempt was being carried out to rescue Dowland's  output from "the classical tradition,"  where it doesn't sit very comfortably.

Sting's recording of a Dowland CD several years ago is an indication that the Elizabethan composer's populist appeal is worth exploring. Small wonder that Slattery and La Nef offered as an encore the best-known Dowland song, "Come again,"  which is also featured in Sting's cameo appearance on Joshua Bell's 2009 album, "At Home With Friends."

And you could easily correlate the instrumental "Fine Knacks for Ladies," which opened the concert's second half, with a Celtic bar band's performance, given the drive Amanda Keesmat imparted to the syncopated cello line (played on a modern instrument, not the program's listed "baroque cello").

Dagher's arrangements occasionally stray from Dowland's harmonic language, as he admitted from the stage. This artistic license was in service to the singer-and-backup-band vibe the program succeeded in achieving, thanks largely to the tenor's compelling performances. In "Dowland in Dublin," La Nef could be
labeled by the pop term "cover band," tweaking the originals respectfully but with a fresh approach to winning over today's audiences. As measured by two standing ovations — one at the end of the program and one after the encore — and the sold-out supply of CDs during intermission, the musicians know how to meet that goal.