Newberry Consort and Slavic Projection Folk Ensemble

at Oak Park’s Grace Episcopal Church, April 12

By Sarah Bryan Miller

What is musical authenticity? How closely should performers strive to hew to what they determine to be authentic? To what extent should commercial considerations (“Will people pay to listen to this stuff?”) be allowed to elbow aside the loftier concerns of scholarship? Are compromises in performance style and instrumentation acceptable?

These questions have occupied early-music performers since the authentic movement began 30 years ago, and they may well be debated forever, because many of our ideas about what constitutes authenticity are doomed to remain speculative. Whether Beethoven was serious about some of his tempo markings–which often seem either absurdly slow or ridiculously fast–has been endlessly debated. If we can’t be sure of his intent, how can we be sure about music composed centuries before his time?

Music critic-provocateur Norman Lebrecht points out some cognitive dissonance in the early-music world in his book The Maestro Myth: given their vastly differing readings, not all period-instrument specialists can be right. He writes, “‘If you say you’re doing something authentic,’ warned an American scholar, ‘what are the implications for what everyone else is doing?’ If Hogwood’s Mozart was accurate, then Gardiner’s was presumably out of tune and Norrington apparently beat the wrong time. Goebel implied that all the rest were charlatans and Harnoncourt went his own way.” Musical “truths” often prove subjective–as much a matter of interpretation in early music as in later compositions.

The further back we go, the murkier things become. While plenty of baroque instruments are still around and available to be played or copied, there are far fewer from the Renaissance and virtually none from the medieval period. The Newberry Consort’s Mary Springfels notes that if you want to build a medieval-style harp your best source of information may be a picture of one in a church window. We can make well-educated guesses at how they were tuned, how they were played, and how they sounded based on contemporary accounts and the use of their musical descendants–but we can never be certain.

And music that was never written down is difficult to reconstruct, especially since it was greatly prone to alteration when it passsed from performer to performer. Current folk singers who make mistakes in the words have been known to sardonically shrug off their errors as “the folk process”–and not without reason. After a few generations a song can be virtually unrecognizable. Words change, tunes may go from secular to religious and back. The Boston Camerata’s excellent recording New Britain: The Roots of American Folksong traces the source material for some songs from as early as the tenth century. Sometimes the relationship is immediately obvious, but in other tunes it must almost be taken on faith.

Given the impossibility of an absolutely accurate reconstruction of much early music, it’s tempting to say that there can be multiple right ways to do a piece. That, at any rate, was the happy conclusion reached at an unusual collaboration on Saturday night. The Newberry Consort and the Slavic Projection Folk Ensemble are both scholarly groups, ardent and careful researchers and performers of the music of, respectively, western Europeans in the centuries around the Renaissance and the western and southern Slavs over many centuries. Their approaches to research aren’t far apart, but their approaches to performance are very different. The consort plays authentic instruments or facsimiles, including baroque violins and viols. The ensemble, while sticklers for echt Slavic vocalism (a kind of belting that’s an acquired taste for the classically trained ear) perform using the instruments available to them–distinctly “inauthentic” innovations such as steel-stringed guitars, modern fiddles, Irish pennywhistles, and hammer dulcimers–and what the program notes called a “living tradition” of folk singing.

Titled “Boundaries of the Renaissance: Central European Music of the 15th Century,” the program included solos by each ensemble, collaborations in scholarly performance, and a grand “crossover” at the end that combined the “living tradition” with both early and modern instruments and infectious good cheer.

The most intriguing and least familiar numbers were the Czech pieces from the late 14th and early 15th centuries. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, a great deal of hitherto unheard baroque music from Prague has found its way onto compact discs, and it was fascinating to hear the music that formed some of the basis for that performance tradition. The hymns of the early Protestant reformer Jan Hus echo in the tunes of Martin Luther and his followers, a debt few today recognize.

The Newberry Consort–viola da gambist Springfels, violinist David Douglass, countertenor Drew Minter (here dropping out of his well-developed falsetto to display a pleasant light baritone in several numbers), and frequent guest Barbara Weiss on harp, recorder, and viol–did their usual fine job. The Slavic Projection Folk Ensemble–with Mazurka Wojciechowska on hammer dulcimer and fiddle, Elizabeth Staffen Halbe on guitar and pennywhistle, John Perovich on guitar, Peter Gronwold on percussion, and all of them singing–gave the concert a somewhat livelier tone than what’s usual. The greatest revelation was Wojciechowska, whose playing, singing, and spoken introductions were especially enthusiastic and well-informed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photos of Slavic Projection Folk Ensemble and Newberry Consort.