“All I want for Christmas is a sackbut.” ~ Sara Hessel, KMFA Music Director
Actually, I don’t really want a sackbut for Christmas. My ears are already ringing with the three amazing early music Christmas concerts that I’ve enjoyed in the past week!
It all started with “Yule, Brittania!” presented by Texas Early Music Project. We enjoyed carols, chant and traditional music from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, spanning the 13th-19th centuries. TEMP’s vocalists were in excellent form, and did full justice to the lovely arrangements by artistic director Daniel Johnson. While they gave us lots of ‘new’ pieces, somehow it’s par for the course at Christmas to enjoy the old familiar favorites the best, like “Ye sons of men, with me rejoice,” and the heart-melting Scottish lullaby “Balooloo, my lammie,” with alto Stephanie Prewitt singing it like only she can.
I couldn’t believe my luck when I heard that the UK-based Dufay Collective would be performing in Houston! I’ve been a fan of their spirited performances for years, and have played their excellent recordings on Ancient Voices many times. Their program of 16th- and 17th-century English music was sheer joy to listen to. Vocalist Vivien Ellis seemed to have stepped right out of one of Henry VIII’s Christmas revels with her clarion tone, excellent diction and storyteller’s sense. Especially memorable was an anonymous ballad called “To drive the cold winter away,” and the very moving “Thys endere nyghyt,” gorgeously arranged by director William Lyons. It was fascinating to watch the players switch effortlessly from one instrument to another: Mr. Lyons played flute, recorder, curtal (an ancestor of the bassoon) and bagpipes!
Rounding out this incredible week of music was the most dynamic performance of Handel’s Messiah I’ve ever heard, given by Austin’s own Ensemble VIII, along with Mercury Baroque (Houston), and directed by Dr. James Morrow. Dr. Morrow’s historically informed performance gave this hoary yet beloved masterpiece a much-needed dust off. The pared-down vocal and instrumental forces made for an extremely transparent texture that allowed the listener to hear nuances usually lost in large-scale productions. Quick tempi were used to great effect, but even the fastest passages were executed with precision. But this was no purely technical performance! The whole emotional spectrum of this masterwork was there for the hearing: the exuberant delight of “For unto us a Child is born,” the mystical “Behold the Lamb of God,” the pathos of “He was despised,” and the majesty of the Hallelujah Chorus and “Worthy is the Lamb.” It was an unforgettable experience, and one that I hope to have the pleasure of repeating next year!