Literature and music commingled pleasingly in the most recent Pegasus Early Music concert, given last Sunday afternoon at Downtown United Presbyterian Church. The program, "Pepys' Pajamas," was inspired by the Restoration-era diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703).
An ambitious politician and general man-about-London, Pepys kept a diary for less than a decade (1660 to 1669). But it was a lively decade, including the restoration of Charles II, the Great Fire of London, and an attack of plague, all of which he described vividly. Pepys also oversaw a lively household, was visited by attacks of ill health, and spent a great deal of his free time at the theater and listening to and playing music -- or as he spelled it, "musique."
Hence this concert, which presented a Pepys playlist: an extremely satisfying array of music and composers referred to by Pepys, performed by him, and in one case written by him. Pegasus' whimsical title played off Pepys' frequent sign-off to his diary entries: "and so to bed." (And the whimsical title of this review plays off the pronunciation of his last name: "Peeps.")
I could listen to this stuff all night, particularly in performances as pointedly graceful as this. The music is gracefully melodic and often infectiously rhythmic, seldom straying too far from its roots in folksong and dance. The use of period instruments gives the music a delicate, elusive, slightly melancholy quality. Added all up, it does sound "English," even when it was influenced by French and Italian music.
The concert also offered a musicological discovery, in the form of two sonatas by Henry Butler, a virtually unknown composer; we don't even know when he was born, though he died in 1652 and his career included service to the Spanish court -- where he was called Don Enrico Butler. This composer's music has been unearthed from English manuscripts by a local musicologist, Elizabeth Phillips. The two sonatas heard here were pleasant discoveries, particularly the melodic F major sonata, which featured some elegant give-and-take between violinist Boel Gidholm and viola da gambist Lisa Terry.
The musicians for "Pepys' Pajamas" were uniformly excellent. Laura Heimes is an ideal singer for this repertoire, with a clear voice and diction; whether bawdy or whimsical, each song received the right approach. Christa Patton showed her talents not only as a harpist (particularly in a "Paven" by William Lawes), but also as a bagpiper, playing an instrument with a softer, sweeter tone than any bagpipe I've heard before (thank goodness).
Patton and lutenist Deborah Fox, often playing in tandem, gave plenty of sparkle and imagination to the realization of the harmonies (the composers often gave melody and bass lines, with only indications of the harmony in between). Fox, who is Pegasus' artistic director, also wrote the informative program notes, including copious quotations from the very quotable Pepys.
The viola da gamba, a predecessor of the cello, was Pepys' own instrument (he often practiced it before bedtime). Had Lisa Terry been around in 1660's London, Pepys would have run to take lessons from her. This instrument sounds excruciating if it is not played well, but Terry plays it very well, with virtuosic bowing and fingering and a lovely mellow tone. Pepys would probably have also enjoyed a few violin lessons from Boel Gidholm, who balanced her own virtuosity with a modest charm. All the women performing in this utterly pleasurable concert brought a delicious sense of style to the music, along with musicological know-how.
Pianist Yuja Wang on Thursday and Saturday broke into Bartok and helped the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra reach new heights.