Review – The Harp Consort’s “The English Dancing Master” – Lufthansa Festival of the Baroque, St. John’s Smith Square

by

On Saturday afternoon I went to my first concert of the Lufthansa Festival of the Baroque – the Harp Consort, performing a program called “The English Dancing Master,” described as “dance tunes and ballads from the theatres, homes and taverns of Baroque London.” I was feeling a little under the weather and not sure if I shouldn’t just go home and get some sleep, as I had doubts that the show would be energetic enough to get through my exhaustion. My doubt, however, were unfounded, as the show far surpassed my expectations.

I was a little disturbed to see that there was going to be a dancer accompanying the music (though given the title of the set I shouldn’t have been). Back in Seattle we had Anna Mansbridge dancing rather frequently to various of the local Baroque and Early Music groups, and while her costumes were lovely, it was distracting (verging on bizarre) to watch her tottering back and forth in front of the musicians, her feet generally completely invisible, looking like a gaily-painted ship fighting the waves in a brave attempt to make it into port. It had turned me off of the Baroque dance altogether.

Steven Player, however, was a far cry from modest Mansbridge, with his swagger and braggadocio. His showmanship was paired with a far more interactive and theatrical performance than I’d ever seen from a group of Seattle players, not to mention the fact that our Player also showed a fine hand at the guitar. In short, that his dancing was fully integrated into the overall performance, and none of the performers had to overdress in period costume in order to get the right effect – white shirts and handsome vests pretty much did it for the men, and violinist Clare Salaman was dressed entirely modernly and yet with the enthusiasm and good humor that did more to create an atmosphere than a room full of panniers would have done.

The performance was divided in five sets – “A Poem of Dancing,” “The Boatemen,” “The New Scots Jig,” “Assemblee” and “A la Mode de France.” Each set featured rather a lot of spoken text, from sources such as Shakespeare, Soame Jenyns “The Art of Dancing,” and the anonymous tract “A Parley betweene Prince Rupert’s Dogge and Tobies Dog” (1643), but also some great singing from the various players (my favorite being Ian Harrison’s “King Orfeo,” I believe, though it seemd like he might have transitioned right into “Johny Faa”). And while we might have just had our silent dancer, not only did he sing and play, but he also entered into duets – and duels, in “The French Dancing-Mastr & the English Soldier” – and a great performance of “The Fidler’s Wife” that had him, Harrison, and Salaman all hamming it up on stage like you never expect of people that have spent most of their life in the conservatory.

Of course, King Ham was Player himself, who came out on stage (with a bit of a strip-tease introduction) in a big-nosed Carnival mask and proceeded to walk out on and over the chairs and into the audience (“There goes the fourth wall,” I thought), there to flirt with, harangue, and amuse the groundlings. This, of course, was on top of his actual dancing, in which he leapt and capered (perhaps like a galliard was meant to be performed?) and kicked his heels up ever higher, egged on all the while by Andrew Lawrence-King, with whom Player had been reciting lines from Twelfth Night.

This was, none the less, very much a group performance, with everyone completely paying attention to each other and in the moment, as you would expect from, say, a jazz ensemble. This was highlighted during a moment of solo violin playing that took place during the “New Scots Jig” set, when everyone on stage had their eyes closed and was listening with pleasure to Salaman’s strings. It wasn’t a bunch of people waiting impatiently for “their turn;” what was happening was beautiful and they were all taking the time to enjoy it. While the music itself was gorgeous, I have to say I was also impressed by the Harp Consort as a whole for displaying the kind of appreciation they did. I think that spirit is part of why the overall effect was so very good; it wasn’t about ego or domination (though there was ego certainly on display, of the good-natured sort); it was a bunch of very talented people having a good time together. I felt lucky to be able to listen with them.

Overall, it’s hard to point at a moment that was the very best, as I was so caught up from one moment to the next I found no real valleys against which to measure the peaks. Who would ever think a harp consort would produce an event so lively? I felt like going and thanking Mr. Lawrence-King afterwards for such a good show. This was a great start (for me) to the series and I look forward both to seeing the next evening’s performance and to finding an opportunity to see this group again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on May 16th, 2009. The Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music continues through May 23rd.)

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “Review – The Harp Consort’s “The English Dancing Master” – Lufthansa Festival of the Baroque, St. John’s Smith Square”

  1. Margaret Says:

    Couldn’t have put it better myself, Cowgirl – I was the groundling who fielded the cotton bag full of Lufthansa brochures during one of Steven Player’s exuberant kicks from the stage! Loved the whole afternoon and hope to catch this great group again soon. I had expected, reading “Harp Consort”, a concert by massed harps, which would have been lovely, but this was true one-off and an experience to be treasured.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: