By Alan G. Artner, in The Chicago Tribune
Fretwork, the peerless British viol consort, came to the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall Friday night with a program of music from Jewish composers that combined old and new with characteristic elegance and daring.
The organizing principle was that a number of Jewish composers created consort music for the Tudor court when, legally, Jews were not allowed in England.
Such music – by members of the Lupo and Bassano dynasties plus contemporaries Leonora Duarte and Philip van Wilder in Holland – made for an evening stately and rewarding. But Fretwork also commissions pieces, and Friday’s concert (like a Harmonia Mundi CD before it) achieved an even higher plane through the inclusion of a score by the present-day British composer of theater music Orlando Gough.
Anyone seeking exoticism would not have found it in the older pieces. Pavans, galliards and fantasias by the Lupos and Bassanos were wholly representative of English court music from about 1550 to 1650. The works show no trace of an earlier declamatory style that may be considered “Jewish.” They are in the imitative polyphonic style common at the time in Northern Europe.
The six members of Fretwork played with the greatest precision and polish. At one point in between numbers they tuned for so long that a semi-comic announcement came from the stage that it was preparation, not a new selection. And such care paid off. Technically, the performances were close to ideal, with extraordinarily sure judgments regarding speed and articulation. I was sorry only that the two works by Salamone Rossi were given in instrumental versions, without the voice heard on the recording.
“Birds on Fire” took inspiration from Aaron Appelfeld’s novel. “Badenheim 1939,” which Gough and a choreographer had once had turned into music theater. The 1997 Fretwork composition is in three movements, which were separated and inserted between older works. Based on two klezmer tunes, “Birds” proved eerie, tight, bouncy, complex and altogether infectious.