At every biennial Boston Early Music Festival, new groups join the roster of the familiar and popular regulars. This year, Ayreheart debuts with Renaissance music from the British Isles. The ensemble of four was born out of Grammy-nominated lutenist Ronn McFarlane’s desire to feature his instrument, to “write new music for the lute, the most popular instrument of the Renaissance, and make it accessible to a wider audience. My first compositions were conceived as solos. But I was soon writing music that could not be fully expressed on solo lute and I needed musician friends to help realize the music. Willard Morris and Mattias Rucht teamed up with me first. Then in 2013 Brian Kay joined us and the band was complete. Together we perform our own original music as well as Renaissance music from the time of Shakespeare.” But it is hardly necessary to convince BEMF attendees of the worthiness of lute music with or without, colascione, hand percussion, and vocalists. Ayreheart also performs Renaissance concerts with voice, two lutes, colascione (a kind of bass lute) and hand percussion.
“Renaissance masters like John Dowland and William Byrd had no qualms about appropriating popular folk music of the era, and Ayreheart follows their example,” McFarlane explains, “fusing Renaissance tunes with influences from contemporary folk and bluegrass traditions. The resulting sound is thoroughly unique and provides a point of entry for modern audiences to hear for themselves why Renaissance writers called the lute ‘the Prince of Instruments.’”
Byrd and Dowland (“My Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe” and “Fortune My Foe”), and other folk songs whose origins are less clear, like “John Barleycorn,” feature in the ensemble’s take on a witty tale on the harvesting and brewing process as an act of torture that has already attained a place in folkloric canon. And the perhaps medieval “Nottamun Town,” to which Bob Dylan gave new lyrics, also gets a new rendition here. The arrangements on “Will You Walk the Woods So Wild,” which provides the title for this concert, also blur the lines between old and new, “art” music and “folk” music.
The program that Ayreheart is offering on June 12th at 11pm at Northeastern University’s Fenway Center provides an enticing glimpse into the lute’s past, and the expressiveness that prompted Renaissance writers to call the lute “The Prince of Instruments.”
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Perennial BEMF favorites The King’s Singers created “Worlds Colliding” especially for this year’s Festival; the show explores the sacred and the secular through the lens of same of the best-known composers of the Renaissance. The first half focuses on the many perspectives on the Book of Psalms, from Protestant William Byrd, to Catholic Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, to Italian/Jewish Salamone Rossi. After intermission, the focus shifts to secular snares and dangers: love, money, and war.
The legendary a cappella sextet of two countertenors, a tenor, two baritones and a bass is renowned for its signature blend, purity of tone, and incisive timing to works of Renaissance composers like including Orlandus Lassus, Heinrich Schütz, Josquin des Prez. Started in 1968 by six recently-graduated choral scholars from King’s College, Cambridge, the ensemble is about to undertake the official kickoff of its GOLD 50th-anniversary season in November 2017, which will include four U.S. tours and a special three-disc album, also called GOLD.
Observing no restrictions as to period or style, since the group’s founding in 1968, it has premiered more than 200 new works, including landmark compositions by György Ligeti, James MacMillan, Toru Takemitsu, John Tavener and Eric Whitacre, among many others, and has commissioned arrangements of everything from jazz standards to pop chart hits.
The award-winning artists were honored in 2009 for their Signum Classics release, Simple Gifts, and again in 2012 for their contribution to Whitacre’s Light & Gold album on the Decca label. In 2013, they were chosen as one of only two vocal ensembles to enter the Gramophone Hall of Fame, in recognition of their unique discography of over 150 albums.