May 6th, 2008

Early Music Now: The Renaissonics “Beltane Concert”

Milwaukee’s Early Music Now is one of two organizations in the area that concentrate on music by time period. (The other, Present Music, has new music as its focus.) After years of looking interestedly at their programs, we finally got to one of their concerts Saturday, may 2, and it was quite fine. Venue for this performance was the Schwann Concert Hall at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Wauwatosa, which is a very nice smaller hall, seating about 300.

The Renaissonics consists of six musicians: Leader John Tyson, recorders (everything from soprano to great bass); Douglas Freundlich, lute; Laura Gulley and James Johnson, violin; Daniel Ryan, cello; and Miyuki Tsurutani, harpsichord and recorder. Together the group has a very pleasing and authentically period-seeming sound. The ensemble members have evident love and enthusiasm for their music, and shared occasional educational background bits with us.

The program was divided into five parts or themes. The first, “The Witches’ Sabbath,” honored the pagan holiday of Beltane with four pieces, the first, curiously enough, being a setting by Antoine Brumel of the “Dies Irae.”

The second section was “La Commedia,” which included a number of lively dance tunes by Palestrina and others. “The Masque” had the First and Second Witches’ Dances from “The Queen’s Masque”, The Satyr’s Masque, and a piece called “The Ghost” by Phillip Rosseter. “The Woods So Wild” included the piece of that name by William Byrd, and “Christes Cross,” by Thomas Morley. Mr. Tyson informed us that this complex piece is rarely performed, due to the extended passages that count seven beats against eight, and then seven vs. nine vs. two. The trio of Tyson, Ryan, and Gulley made it through quite featly.

“The Beginning of the World,” was the final section, with pieces from “The English Dancing Master” and others.

The ensemble was accompanied by two very skilled professional dancers and teachers of dance, Mark Mindek and Maris Wolff, who gave us an impressive number of dances (and costume changes). They started off with a classical couples dance to the Attiagnent “Pavan” and “Branle Gay” in the first section. They moved into more fanciful material with a sword dance done on stilts, which is evidently one of Mr. Mindek’s specialties. Ms. Wolff entertained with a droll dance wearing a two-faced mask to “Aria del Gran Duca”. Wolff again lead out as a “goat” pursued by a troll (Mindek again on stilts) in a very funny and clever dance number. Skillful as Mr. Mindek is on his stilts, the effect began to get a bit old when he came out as “The Green Man” (if you effectively have no ankles the repertoire of dance moves is somewhat limited) but the number was enlivened by the participation of Ms. Wolff as a forest fairy.

The concert was followed by a reception and the audience members had been invited to sign up during the interval for dance lessons after the show. Discretion being the better part of valor, we elected to withdraw instead.

Beautiful as the music was, I left the concert with a feeling of melancholy. I am very worried about the future of programs like this one. The hall for this performance was nearly full. Surveying the audience, I see a sea of gray heads. When I started going to opera and symphony performances 35 years ago, it was no shock to me that 75% of the audience was older than I am. Now I’m 54, and 75% of the audience is STILL older than I am. I’ve noted this phenomenon at the opera, at folk music concerts, and to a slightly lesser degree at the ballet (which always has a somewhat larger contingent of young women in the audience) and at the symphony. What will happen to these cultural institutions when this audience starts dying off? 25% of the present audience won’t sustain them. Even if there is some recruiting of new audience members, I have my doubts that there will ever be a new crop of interested retirees with ticket money, given the ongoing campaign on the part of Big Business to pare away at pensions, take away the health care that supports an able old age, and dismantle Social Security entirely or toss it into the greedy clutches of brokers and bankers. I guess I can add this to my list of signs that the American Golden Age is coming to an end. Oh, well—might as well enjoy it while we can. Now, where did I leave my fiddle?

Broadway Series, “Monty Python’s Spamalot”, Sunday May 3rd

Speaking of going from the sublime to the ridiculous (or, "And now for something completely different"--).

The Broadway Series is another one we look at often, but seldom buy. This is the organization that brings road companies (usually musicals) into town. We don’t often see ones we want, but “Spamalot” was a must. Georgie had gotten a CD of the score and found it quite enchanting and fun, and since I am a big fan of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” it was a natural for us.

The Marcus Center had a special event that I went to when single tickets went on sale (complete with a surprisingly good buffet of Spam hors d’oveurs). I was in line in good time to have choice of seats, and was rather bemused to see that the entire hall had been priced on a two-tiered plan: main floor, boxes, and side loge were all one price, center loge and balcony another. When I got to the ticket window, for the heck of it, I asked if any box seats were available. They were, and I got two in the front row center of the box section, which is actually a mezzanine but has exceptionally good sight lines. The Marcus Center boxes aren’t very luxurious compared with some other theatres, but do have more elbow and leg room than standard seats, and Georgie was delighted with our location.

If you are at all familiar with “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the plot needs no introduction. If you are not, it defies all explanation, save to say that it is a very loose satire of the Arthurian Grail quest story as done by Monty Python, with all that implies in the way of breaking the fourth wall, anachronistic popular culture references, shameless theft (sometimes from themselves), a bit of naughtiness, and off-the-wall wackiness.

The role of “King Arthur” was played by Gary Beach, who is a Broadway veteran with a strong singing voice, and even better declamatory tone in the speaking tone. The script makes his character more active and engaged than Graham Chapman’s clueless and frustrated movie Arthur, a necessary change for musical theatre which works well.

The role of The Lady of the Lake (Esther Stillwell) is a major addition to the movie plot, since the film had no major female characters. In Python tradition, some of the female parts are done by men in travestie, but there is a small female chorus who appear as the Lady’s handmaidens and other background roles. Ms. Stillwell has an excellent voice for the role, poses well in costume, and has a good “diva” manner essential to some of the humor she is given. She also manages to keep up with the men in mimicking bits from other show styles and entertainers in aid of the satire. One nice thing about the Lady of Lake’s presence is that, after the marked left turn the already corkscrewing plot takes in the “very expensive forest,” she provides a nicely ironic way for the show to end, as opposed to the movie which kind of peters out.

Other major players included James Beaman as Sir Robin/Guard 1/Brother Maynard, Patrick Heusinger as Sir Launcelot/The French Taunter/Tim the Enchanter, Ben Davis as Sir Galahad/The Black Knight/King of Swamp Castle, and Christopher Gurr as Sir Bedevere et al. Christopher Sutton was a major supporter as the Historian, Not Dead Fred, Minstrel, and Prince Herbert.

The staging and costumes were nicely done with some nifty effects, including projections that brought in some of the Gilliam-style graphics and animations. We enjoyed the entire performance very much.

In light of my previous post, it would appear that musical theatre (or at least Monty Python) is in less danger of dying out, as I noted lots of young people in the audience--.