Barokksolistene’s “Winter Wassail” cuts loose with spirit of the season

Mon Dec 18, 2023 at 3:16 pm
Barokksolistene performed Sunday at Riverside Church for the Music Before 1800 series. Photo: Tatiana Daubek

The question Sunday night in the Assembly Hall of the Riverside Church was: Is Bill Barclay a doctor?

The newly appointed artistic director of the concert series Music Before 1800 answered the call for “a doctor in the house” as part of a comical scene during “Winter Wassail,” a farrago of music, skits and revelry put on by the Danish early-music group Barokksolistene, with assisting artists including flutist and singer Emi Ferguson.

With the aid of a vial of elixir, some chanting audience participation, and an impressive top hat, Barclay “revived” the loser of a mock swordfight. The venerable early-music series may or may not need saving itself, but the veteran director and composer certainly has been doctoring it this season by exploring new performing venues and cultural traditions beyond the European church- and-court music that have been its bread-and-butter for decades.

Hence the “Wassail”–from Middle English waes hael, “to your health!”—which was not exactly a concert, but an evocation of the ancient winter festival when, for a precious few days, people of all stations could forget about work, sing, dance, act out and drink a lot.

Instead of sitting in neat rows and scanning program notes and song texts, listeners enjoyed glasses of hot spiced cider or mulled wine at tables, with the church hall’s ornate beamed ceiling and stone arches enhancing the medieval atmosphere, while eight performers prowled the stage, singing, dancing, flirting and miming.

Barokksolistene’s artistic director and arranger Bjarte Eike led the revels, his violin ever ready to pick out a sentimental song or a hot dance in non-vibrato folk style. In the spirit of the occasion, Eike and his band studiously discouraged studying.  Some of the tunes, from the British Isles and Scandinavia, were listed in the program, but not in order of performance. A few composers of note were cited, such as Anthony Holborne and Henry Purcell, but the composer named “Trad.” led the parade.

The show’s co-creator with Eike was baroque guitarist and dancer Steven Player, who repeatedly demonstrated he could cut a rug—to whoops from the ensemble–despite Eike’s ungallantly disclosing his age (64). He also told a ghost story (with flutist Ferguson miming the title role in an enormous white fur coat), egged the revelers on as a thick-bearded Father Christmas, led the audience in a chant of “Wassail! Drink ale!” and partnered the other musicians artfully on his small guitar.

Ferguson’s flauto piccolo festively topped the otherwise all-string ensemble and duetted prettily with the exotic instrument slung around Andrew Gonzalez’s shoulder, the cello da spalla. Later in the show, her long wooden baroque flute added its velvety note to the ensemble texture.

On this occasion, the eminent flutist sang as much as she played, in a clear, flexible mezzo-soprano strong enough to lead the audience in a wassail singalong and tender enough to taper a lullaby to the tiniest pianissimo.

Anchoring the show was percussionist Samuel Budish, who seemed to set the mood and the temperature in the room with just the big drum at his hip and an endless variety of head and rim strokes. Something scary happening? Want to make an announcement? Gotta dance? Budish was there.

Also roaming the stage and combining in ever-changing ways were violinists Edwin Huizinga and Ravenna Lipchik (Lipchik also playing viola) and bassist Wen Yang (yes, the bass player roamed too). It seemed at times that Eike’s arrangement of the old tunes had as much to do with choreography as with instrumentation. (Barclay was credited as the show’s stage director.)

Curiously for a performance aimed at involving the audience in revelry, the performers never came down off the stage until the very end, and then only to play the last song while strolling among the tables on their way out.

Still, for a Music Before 1800 concert, the whole experience was pretty radical. The doctor was in.

Music Before 1800 presents the Harlem Chamber Players with violinist Brendan Elliott and actors from Concert Theater Works in “The Chevalier: The Life and Music of Joseph Bologne,” written and directed by Bill Barclay, 4 p.m. Jan. 21, 2024 at the United Palace Theater, 4140 Broadway.

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