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Crackerjack BEMF Ensemble Throws a Dance


Robert Mealy (file photo)
Robert Mealy (file photo)

Whatever these BEMF chamber players take to make it through weeks of mad rehearsals and stunning performances must be pretty good stuff. Artistic directors Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette were surely flying high on their Saturday night off, as Robert Mealy grabbed the kite strings of the crack ensemble for the traditional 11 PM concert at Jordan Hall. Featuring the equivalent of rave music from the turn of the 17th century, it was a chance for fully spent conventioneers to rock out Renaissance style.

Venice, home of the Gabrielis and the best Caprese salad I ever consumed, was the first dance party locale. Giovanni Gabrielli’s Canzon IX in eight parts was broad and restrained, allowing for the first of many delicious flourishes throughout the night. The joy of these pieces, with their metamorphosing sections of different dance rhythms and conversational back-and-forths between instrumental groups, is in their “sheer bliss of sonority,” as Mealy’s program notes put it. As is clear from the more harmonically static sections of these works, it would be enough for a concert to be composed of G Major chords in different voicings with this orchestration: the strings, continuo, and percussion of the BEMF ensemble combined with the gangbusters cornetti and trombones of the Dark Horse Consort. Jordan Hall rang distinctly and brightly with the strains of Biagio Marini’s Balletto secondo, featuring Danny Mallon in the first of many creative percussive appearances, and closing with a harmonically wowzers “Retirata.” Avi Stein’s fingers flared with flair, his rippling rolls in perfect harmony with David Morris and Phoebe Carrai’s polished and free bass lines.

Set in northern Germany, the next grouping opened with William Brade’s 16th Canzon; its interlocking, cascading echoes making the ensemble sound thrice its size. The sweeter violins found themselves trading musical braggadocios with the sassier brass and winds, a “sharks and jets” moment so visually arresting that you could almost hear fingers snapping. Naturally, there had to be some dances, and Brade’s nicely controlled Galliard allowed for blistering double tonguings and unusual licks in the winds. The section closer Johannes Vierdanck Canzon featured some poppy rhythm almost never heard outside of techno, and the performance was a stunning display of just what historical performance can be. From what little there is written on the page, Mealy and company seamlessly constructed a wild ride through the many section changes, gradual transitions turning explosive, others nearly silent before bursting into a surprise party, and always with fascinating dialogue between Mealy and his partner in violin shenanigans, the criminally talented Julie Andrijeski.

England allowed the dance time for repose, with Mallon’s mournful thumps on the bass drum giving a distant dirge-like feel to Holbrone’s Spero Pavan. But the following Galliard brought the energy back up for “The Fairy-round,” the cornetti soaring off into the stratosphere. Fortunately the Dark Horse Consort’s members all had recorders on hand for the final set: dances from Michael Praetorius’s “Terpsichore,” a wide-ranging compilation of dance, lute song, and more. Was Praetorius presaging Pride Week’s alignment with BEMF when he included the courante “I care not for these ladies” in Terpsichore, or was that just a happy coincidence? Hard to say. But these dances made for a great finish, the Boston Early Music Festival Dance Ensemble emerging to much laughter and applause, their elegant ruffs rippling to the strains of Charles Weaver’s heroic lute and guitar strummings. The closing Volta, a buoyant dance of leaps and lifts offered “the illicit pleasure of viewing more than just a lady’s ankle.”  Unhinged in all the right ways, the dance Mealy led somehow epitomized the entire evening—a dance party indeed, full of pleasures licit and otherwise.

Jacob Street is an organist and harpsichordist who received his Master’s from Oberlin Conservatory in 2012, and currently studies at the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale. While at Oberlin, Jacob was awarded the inaugural Rubin Prize for Music Criticism.

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