On January 10, 2014, the Folger Consort presented a musical feast drawn from the inspiration of William Shakespeare's The Tempest. What was particularly unusual about this concert was a suite of songs and dances composed by a contemporary composer. In the 1990s, James Primosch composed Songs and Dances from "The Tempest" for the Folger Consort. In a pre-concert talk moderated by Robert Aubrey Davis, Primosch said he never expected to have a second performance. In fact, he felt so certain of this, he rescored the music to eliminate the old instrumentation and has subsequently had the piece played with modern instruments a couple of times.
The scope of this concert was much larger than the usual Folger Consort program. Played in the nave of the Washington National Cathedral, the 32-member baroque orchestra Tempesta di Mare, soprano Rosa Lamoreaux, and baritone William Sharp joined the Folger Consort for a 90-minute program that began with the full cast of performers playing and singing incidental music by Matthew Locke and Robert Smith and songs from Thomas Shadwell's 1674 version of The Tempest. Other early music composers drawing inspiration from The Tempest included John Banister, Hart and Pelham Humfrey. The second half of the program saw a more intimate group of musicians (only seven and among them Folger Consort founding members Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall and Tempesta di Mare director Gwyn Roberts) with the featured singers perform the ten-part Primosch piece. The finale brought back the entire cast of musicians to play Antonio Vivaldi's Concerto in F, which is also known as La Tempesta di Mare.
The Dresser saw part one of the concert with the early music Tempest compositions as a hardy introduction to the contemporary Tempest piece. Primosch's "A Tempestuous Noise," the introductory composition, was a decidedly modern day sound that Primosch characterized as "more like Bartok" than early music. It breaks from the fluidity of early music into squeaks and staccato uncharacteristic of the old period music. Robert Aubrey Davis said he was worried when he first started listening to Primosch's suite of songs and dances but then he assured the pre-concert listeners that what follows settles into a style most acceptable to the ear of early music fans. Personally the Dresser liked Primosch's beginning number because it asserted that the composer was not imitating early music and that his foothold is squarely in the 21st century. Primosch's music for "Come Unto These Yellow Sands" from Act I, scene ii was a big wow. Here is the text from Shakespeare's The Tempest as adapted by Primosch:
Come unto these yellow sands
And then take hands.
Curtsied when you have, and kissed
The wild waves whist.
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burden bear.
........Burden dispersedly. Bowgh, wowgh!
..................The watchdogs bark.
........Burden dispersedly. Bowgh, wowgh!
........Hark, hark! I hear
........The strain of strutting chanticleer
The music around the words "The wild waves whist" incorporates a catchy Middle Eastern percussive soundscape. While Rosa Lamoreaux presented both Thomas Shadwell's and Primosch's versions of "Come Unto These Yellow Sands" with comic verve, there is something about Primosch's music that both grounds and makes the composition soar. Perhaps the use of the Middle Eastern accent (nor uncommon in early music) lends a layer of mystery lacking in Shadwell's version.
Throughout the performance of Primosch's music, William Sharp's singing was enhanced by his animated gestures. In singing the part of Caliban in "Flout 'em and Scout 'em/Be Not Afear'd," Sharp managed to show himself swelling with the lines such as the remarkable close: "...when I waked,/I cried to dream again." Also notable was how he finessed a transition from song to speech in "The Master, the Swabber, the Boatswain, and I."
Decidedly pleasing was the soothing but subdued closing duet "Our Revels Now Are Ended." It left the Dresser and her seatmate wanting more of Primosch, Tempesta di Mare, soprano Rosa Lamoreaux, baritone William Sharp and of course the Folger Consort.
Here's a list of the movements with instrumentation that shows the rich variety of Primosch's music:
1. A Tempestuous Noise
sopranino recorder, 2 bass viols, lute, very small suspended cymbal
2. Come Unto These Yellow Sands
soprano, treble viol, bass viol, lute, dumbek
3. Solemn Music of Ariel
tenor recorder, 2 bass viols, lute
4. The Master, the Swabber, the Boatswain, and I
baritone, alto recorder, treble viol, bass viol, lute
5. Full Fathom Five
soprano, bass recorder, 2 bass viols, lute, crotales in E and B
6.Flout 'em and Scout 'em / Be Not Afeard
baritone, alto recorder, vielle, kamenji, bass viol, citole, harp, psaltery, tambourine
7a. A Solemn and Strange Music
alto recorder, 2 bass viols
7b. Honor, Riches, Marriage Blessing
7c. Earth's Increase, Foison Plenty
baritone, alto recorder, 2 bass viols, lute
7d. A Graceful Dance, a Confused Noise
soprano recorder, 2 alto recorders, lute
8. No More Dams
baritone, rebec, vielle, citole, nakara
9. Where the Bee Sucks
soprano, alto recorder, bass viol, lute
10. Our Revels Now Are Ended
soprano, baritone, alto recorder, 2 bass viols, lute, crotales in E and B
In Leslie Harrison's "Pantoum for a Walk in the Woods," we hear a musical echo to the Folger Consort's program "Brave New World: Music of The Tempest," where Consort directors deign to mix old with new. As the pantoum form repeats so does the music of inspired by Shakespeare's play The Tempest. So join the Dresser in a romp through the woods where the modern day bee sucks from a cowslip bell.
PANTOUM FOR A WALK IN THE WOODS
Everything rhymes. Take a forest of trees,
thousands (each different, but they are lost
in the crowd), and rocks uncounted, a host of bees
in a standing snag. Walking, I pass them all
by the thousands. Each different is lost:
too many, so nearly the same. They rhyme, but
stand together, snagging meaning, leaving it all
to repeat, endlessly. Differences, so small,
are nearly the same. The rhythm of walking
follows the contour of the climb, and the heart
repeats, endlessly. Diffident, its small
stutter is locked to quiet. This pattern
follow the cadence of the climb. The heart
contrives with breath: the eyes refuse all difference,
become locked, in step with the quiet stutter
of stones underfoot. And the miles go by,
contriving with the body to refuse all distances.
I remember the crowded, cluttered wealth
of stones underfoot. And the miles go by
like giants, self-referential, meaningless.
I remember the crowded, cluttered woods,
the lumbering grace of the mysterious other--
like giants, self-referential--all meaning
hidden in the difference. We move through life
in the crowd, uncounted, a thousand bees
hiding and hidden. In our different lives,
nothing rhymes. And we mistake the trees
for each other, for lumber, or for pews.
by Leslie Harrison
from Displacement Poems
Copyright © 2009 Leslie Harrison
Photo of Tempesta di Mare by Andy Kahl