Saturday, June 23, 2018

52nd season opens as Indianapolis Early Music Festival releases its inner folkie with Ayreheart

Mark Cudek, artistic director of the Indianapolis Early Music Festival since 2007, has long prided
Ayreheart: Willard Morris (from left), Ronn McFarlane, and Mattias Rucht.
himself on assembling seasons of great diversity that help erase narrow notions of early music.

So, in addition to "high art" and high Baroque repertoire, he welcomes expertise in music with more ancient roots but with the kind of range to which the crossover label can be applied without embarrassment. Thus, it was a natural Cudek touch to open the festival's new season Friday with Ayreheart in a program titled "Ayres of Albion: Songs, Dances, and Ballads of England, Scotland, and Wales." Before popular, folk, and classical became labels applied to different genres, there was a musical mainstream that embraced everything but the sacred.

Ayreheart is a trio put together by Ronn McFarlane, a lutenist and Cudek colleague in the Baltimore Consort, which played a Shakespeare-themed concert in the 2016 festival. Other Ayreheart members performing Friday at the Indiana History Center were Matthias Rucht, percussion, and Willard Morris, colascione (a lute-like instrument of Italian origin). The latter instrument was lightly amplified to project its bass line, as were McFarlane's lutes.

Balance and sufficient projection into the center's 290-seat Basile Theater were thus achieved without compromising the string instruments' natural plucked sound. (There was a hint of the revered Jaco Pastorius in Morris' solo late in the program.) Rucht played a variety of percussion, sensitive to the various musical contexts, focusing on hand drums.

For all the essential contributions of the other two musicians, Ayreheart is mainly a showcase for McFarlane, who supplemented the annotation in the program book with engaging oral program notes from the stage. He displayed a graceful command of his instrument, which he played in both 19-string and, late in the program, 24-string versions. His articulation was both briskly ornamental and meltingly lyrical, as needed. "Passemeze," a 16th-century piece by Adrian LeRoy, for instance, featured some artful retreading of the same short path, with the busier, more compact runs giving ample evidence of McFarlane's virtuosity.

The program had another star with whom the lutenist could share the limelight. Vocalist Sarah Pillow, who has parlayed her jazz background outward into various styles ("an eclectic singer,' her website says), was on hand as guest to offer picturesque interpretations of several songs. Her planned participation diminished in the concert's second half, as she was not in good health, according to festival officials. Yet she delivered admirably, from John Dowland's "Come Again" through the program's rousing conclusion, a nonsense ballad from medieval England called "Nottamun Town."

An original encore, "Sings in Her Sleep," demonstrated that her voice could sustain a singer-songwriter intimacy, though the genre almost demands a microphone. But from belting ("John Barleycorn," which ended the first half) to the hard-to-define early-art-song territory (Dowland's "Fortune, My Foe"), she showed herself to be an adaptable artist. Emotional urgency was sometimes linked credibly to a soft-spoken manner, as in the medieval Welsh lament "Ddoi di dai." A gruesome Scottish ballad, "Twa Corbies," brought forth a nasal timbre suitable to its account of a couple of ravens discoursing on their plan to devour a slain knight bit by bit.

Amid the raucous vocals, "John Barleycorn" featured an instrumental chorus that bore similarities to gypsy jazz, and there were further signs that idiomatic flexibility is part of Ayreheart's stock in trade. The range and tastefulness of Rucht's percussion contributions seemed unerring, part of whatever would bring these short pieces across most effectively to an audience, which was obviously appreciative Friday night. A further chance to savor McFarlane's playing will be available in this festival on July 1, when he will appear in a lute duo with Paul O'Dette.

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