PORTLAND – The first concert of the Portland Early Music Festival bodes well for the annual continuation of the three-day series launched this fall by the Portland Conservatory of Music.

The musicians were not only experts on ancient instruments but also made the experience musical as well as historical for the enthusiastic audience that filled Memorial Hall at Woodfords Congregational Church to capacity Friday.

Titled “An Age of Ayres: Song in 17th-century England and France,” the program led off with three songs by Henry Purcell (1659-95), arguably England’s foremost composer before (and after) the advent of the Germans Handel and Haydn.

The songs “Music for a While,” “Sweeter Than Roses” and “Evening Hymn” were authentically and lovingly rendered by Timothy Neill Johnson, tenor, Gavin Black, harpsichord, and Kathryn Sytsma, viola da gamba.

They were followed by three songs, also on the subjects of love and dalliance, by Henry Lawes (1596-1662), sung by Johnson and soprano Erin Chenard, with accompaniment by Timothy Burris on lute. They showed ability to sing elaborate ornaments without losing vocal power.

One was transported to the parlor of Samuel Pepys, Lawes’ contemporary, but somehow I don’t think the performances there would have been as professional, for all the famous biographer’s study of vocal trills.

The final trio of songs was by John Dowland (1563-1626) for counter-tenor, sung by Samuel Sytsma, accompanied by Burris, Kathryn Sytsma, and Jessica Sytsma, violin.

Concluding the first half of the concert was a wonderful instrumental Chacony (Chaconne) by Purcell for harpsichord, violin, viola da gamba and recorder, played by John Sytsma. The instruments were tuned to a different standard than today’s, and somehow the relaxation of tension translates to the music.

The show’s second half was devoted to songs by French composers who influenced the English style. Some of them seemed like recitative, until they broke into lively dance forms, like Jean Planson’s (circa 1545-1612) “La Rousee du joly mois de may.”

The most impressive piece of the evening was a French cantata by Louis-Nicolas Clerambault (1676-1749) for chamber orchestra and tenor. The mini-opera depicted the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, the model for “Romeo and Juliet.”

As sung by Johnson, it was surprisingly intense, with a musical depiction of emotion that seemed well in advance of its time.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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