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Exquisite Fretwork at Early Music Now’s Season Opener

Oct. 11, 2016
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Image via Fretwork Facebook

Early Music Now began its 30th season last Saturday evening. One of the major classical series in town, it has grown from a fledgling organization founded by the visionary Thallis Hoyt Drake to become one of the premiere early music presenters in the country.

The British viol ensemble Fretwork gave an exquisite concert at the Zelazo Center at UW-Milwaukee. The theme was “In Nomine,” short for In Nomine Domini (“in the name of the Lord”), a section from a mass setting by John Taverner (1490-1545). Following his lead, many 16th-century English composers set their own “In Nomine” on the same plainchant theme, and this was the bulk of the program.

Viols, forerunners to the violins, violas and cellos that emerged in the 16th century, are quiet in nature. The artful, subtle playing of Fretwork—with perfectly executed and tuned ensemble—brought out the unearthly beauties of 16th-century music by Christopher Tye, Robert Parsons, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons. Much of it is choral music in its textures; English music of the Renaissance could often be either played or sung. The mood alternated between a meditative spirit and lively interplay between parts.

The five players of Fretwork also commission new works for viol ensemble. The concert featured the first U.S. performance of “In Nomine” by young American composer Nico Muhly (b. 1981). Titled Slow, it paradoxically features fast repeated notes and restrained energy, but with slow-moving changes of harmony. The music settles into soulfulness, occasionally interrupted with a return of the fast repeated notes. I found it arrestingly beautiful. Another work written for the ensemble was “In Nomine” by Gavin Bryars (b. 1943), which is colorful, thoughtful and somber. Expressive, virtuoso playing came in three Fantasias written on the “In Nomine” theme by Henry Purcell. 

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