The Toronto Consort: Renaissance Splendours at Trinity-St. Paul’s Jeanne Lamon Hall Friday. Repeats, Saturday, Nov. 18. torontoconsort.org
Anyone who’s worked in the arts in the last fifty years has likely had mixed feelings towards the institution of artistic patronage. Artists, so the story goes, have all the taste and expertise, but none of the money they need to live and make art, and patrons (and patronesses) have all the money, but are cultural philistines. The artist finds a patron to sponsor him, the patron can pass himself off as a gentleman of learning and good taste, and everybody wins in the end.
The Toronto Consort explored this relationship between artists and patrons in their opening concert of the season, Renaissance Splendours, a program based around four Renaissance patrons: Queen Elizabeth I (who ruled for roughly the last half of the 16th Century), Charles IX (King of France from 1560-1574), Albrecht V (Duke of Bavaria about the same time as Charles), and Isabella d’Este (Marchesa of Mantua in the early 1600s).
It’s a historical theme that early music groups are often fond of exploring, and given that cultural projects in the 21st-century are increasingly dependant on private patronage from both wealthy individuals and corporate coffers, one well worth exploring in 2017.
But classical music audiences today don’t much care whether a composer today was sponsored by, say, the King of Prussia or a town council somewhere in the middle of Saxony, and even the Consort fudged things a bit to get John Dowland on the program. Though the lutenist is popular today, his application was, I note, rejected by Elizabeth I, and he spent the rest of her reign employed by Christian IV of Denmark.
Still, the Consort gave themselves a chance to both program some very fine music by composers who wouldn’t draw much of a crowd on their name alone, and rehash, in an interesting way, some music they’ve recorded before, and the evening was essentially four miniature concerts of instrumental and vocal music from Renaissance England, France, Germany, and Italy. There were about two dozen songs and dances in all; though I can’t commend the group for its a cappella numbers (too many intonation issues), there were some genuinely touching musical moments in a song dedicated to the Earl of Essex (after he was executed for treason) sung by Laura Pudwell, and a sensitive lute solo by longtime Consort member Terry McKenna.
The Consort’s Italian program also showed off the group particularly well. Katherine Hill, with the help of a stellar backup band, charmed the audience with the lusty “Lirum, bililirum,” and the group’s instrumentalists gave some excellent renditions of some Italian dance tunes, along with the help of several young dancers from the School of Atelier Ballet.
The Consort also showed the audience that a good performance is more important than having an important name on the program. With the exception of a couple of songs by Lassus and Dowland, not a single other piece was by a recognizable Renaissance composer, but every piece was delivered as if it was written yesterday.
Maybe a patron didn’t have to hire a great composer if his musicians could make anything sound like a masterpiece.