Did you play recorder growing up?
I certainly did and I bet most everyone who had any sort of music education as a child was handed one made out of some sort of resin, plastic or a random oil byproduct. To make a sound (noise), all that is required is a stream of air right into the mouthpiece. It's hard to get it wrong.
My memories of the instrument include being involved in a nightmare-inducing choir, often misbehaving and blowing as hard as I could to produce the most annoying high pitched piglike squeal in an attempt to break any glass that had survived previous rehearsals. Mysteriously, my dog was nowhere to be found when my recorder was within sight.
I wasn't very good. And South Park's Brown Noise episode didn't help the instrument's cause.
I only gained somewhat respect for the recorder when I was studying the piccolo concertos of Vivaldi. Michala Petri, Danish soprano recorder virtuoso, was the first performer that started to shift my view of the forsaken piece of plastic (professional instruments are made of wood). She is fantastic, playing with a clear and angelic sound and exemplifying why the instrument was so popular in years past.
But was she the only one?
It was as unusual an ensemble as they come. Four men, living in close proximity, all dedicating their respective lives to an instrument most neglect and deciding to form an ensemble and play together, for over 23 years. I rationalized it as a medieval version of today's string quartet. Two's a couple, three's company and four is an orgy. We like music that way.
Overheard: "Oh my, that's a big recorder!" To which the lady's male companion responded, "well, thank you."
The group's collection of instruments is rather impressive. From the cutest little sopranino baby to the grandfather-esque five-foot contrabass, these men are serious about proving to the world the aesthetic capabilities of the instrument.
The philosophy behind the Belgian ensemble is not as peculiar as it appears. Each recorder acts as each pipe of an organ, creating a haunting homogenous Elizabethan sound. And keeping with the regal air du jour, they presented a through-composed program of music, songs and readings titled "The Six Wives of Henry VIII."
It included a scene from Shakespeare, reading of letters from King Henry and Anne Boleyn and a contemporary piece written specifically for the ensemble by Belgian composer Piet Swert.
What worked? The music was sublime. Playing with virtuosic musicality, sensitivity and poise, members Bart Spanhove, Tom Beets, Joris Van Goethem and Paul Van Loey exploited the limits of the recorder, often changing instruments and role to suit the composition, even using humor where appropriate.
I couldn't help but laugh at repeated mischievous coo coo sounds courtesy of the embouchure of Beets' instrument (though the audience didn't seem to show their appreciation) and the playful theme and variations on a theme by a sparrow.
Soprano Cecile Kempenaers was delightful, singing with a subtly ornamented style, suitable for the music. Her pitch accuracy was superhuman, executing large leaps with ease and scientific precision, almost sounding like an organ herself. Her vibrato shimmered while her phrasing achieved that elastic early music aesthetic, where notes seem to grow in intensity and are thrown into the abyss of a reverberant hall. Chillingly sexy, the concert was filled with satisfyingly delicious medieval cadences.
What didn't work? Though I appreciate the effort to create a cohesive programmatic experience for the audience, the speaking portion was at the level of community theater at best. Cross-artistic concepts are not new, and anyone attempting to do so should be 100 percent committed to their execution.
The concert finished with a couple of encores, which included a little jazzy sexy-naughty tune.
If Houston Early Music continues to bring artists like Cecile Kempenaers and the Flanders Recorder Quartet, its upcoming season is worth checking out.
See you at the concerts.
Here is what the Flanders Recorder Quartet sounds like:
In concert in Taiwan in 2006: