Saturday, June 21, 2014

Early Music Festival opens its season with dance music from the vast art/folk boundary land

Ezra Pound once declared, in the authoritative manner in which he specialized, that music became alienated from its true self whenever it departed far from the dance.

The core of Musica Pacifica is Robert Mealy and Judith Linsenberg (second and third from left)
Certainly the closeness seemed essential before the classical-music world solidified as something apart from popular culture, which had a strong link to social dancing. Musica Pacifica opened the Indianapolis Early Music Festival Friday night at Indiana Landmarks Center with a virtuoso display of such music titled "Dancing in the Isles."

The isles in question are British, and the emphasis was on the 17th century. With recorder player Judith Linsenberg and violinist Robert Mealy at the ensemble's center, the seven-piece group  opened with music of Henry Purcell, the one true immortal from that time and place.

His Suite from "Abdelazer," written in the last year of his short life (1695), showed the balance and coordinated energy of the full group, which included local early-music star Alison Edberg playing viola (later, second violin). Other participants: David Morris, cello and viola da gamba; Charles Weaver, theorbo and guitar; Charles Sherman, harpsichord, and Danny Mallon, percussion.

The Purcell suite is distinguished by the perky Rondeau theme that Benjamin Britten was to exploit 250 years later in his "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra." In the second half, Purcell was again represented, this time by another short-form masterpiece,  "Three Parts Upon a Ground," meaning variations on a little bass line, which was repeated faithfully by Morris. On top of this pattern, Mealy led the variations charge, sometimes with dazzling speed and intricacy.

He was at his most exciting in the concert's most thorough blend of folk and classical genres — Francesco Veracini's "Scozzese: un poco andante et affettuoso," a sonata movement that imposed Italianate trio-sonata stylishness on Scottish material in ways both clever and emotionally engaging.

Mealy and the ensemble (minus Linsenberg) also took the measure of the eccentric Matthew Locke, whose Suite No. 4 in C major (1661) gave them the chance to show how smoothly and naturally they made tempo adjustments in music that, while dance-based, would have been challenging for actual dancers.

This adroit manner of coordinating rhythm and tempo, when short sections of immense variety need to succeed one another smoothly, was apparent as well in Robert Johnson's "The Fairey Masque." That was the concluding section of "A Jacobean Masque," a suite of dances for that form of theatrical entertainment put together by Musica Pacifica. In another "high-art" incorporation of popular art, James Oswald's "Sonata of Scots Tunes" had an unusual structure of fast and slow movements, each of them notable for the consistently high quality of its melodic appeal.

"Dancing in the Isles" got closest to its title in three sets of dances in original arrangements that highlighted the English country dance, traditional Scottish tunes, and traditional Irish tunes. Especially impressive were  the doleful "Irish Lamentation," the crisply syncopated "Gordon" (a Scots tune), and, from the Irish set, "The Kid on the Mountain," with its infectious bodhran drum pattern.

All told, a buoyant demonstration of the 17th-century version of the jazz truism "It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing."

Three of Musica Pacifica's personnel will be involved in the next concert in this year's festival, "Stile Moderno: New Music from the 17th Century" performed Sunday afternoon at 4 by Quicksilver at the Indiana History Center.