There was a sellout crowd in the Mary Seaton Room on Tuesday evening for the concert by the Folger Consort, the renowned early music ensemble which is in residence at Washington, D.C.'s Folger Shakespeare Library.
Much of this can be attributed to the resurgence of interest in early music which began to blossom in the 1950s when Noah Greenberg and his New York Pro Musica emerged as the first early music group with a wide popular following.
But the presence of Buffalo native Robert Eisenstein as one of the Folger Consort's co-founders also helped to swell the audience. He plays bowed instruments and recorder.
Lutenist Christopher Kendall is the other co-founder, and for this concert they were joined by Scott Reiss, with his collection of recorders, and tenor John Elwes.
Their program, "What Then Is Love," was drawn principally from England's Elizabethan era, which was unarguably one of the most hyper-romantic of times. When it comes to exulting in the joys of love or wallowing in the abject despair of unrequited or lost love, the Elizabethan poets and composers knew no equals.
With 27 selections, the artists wisely intermixed the instrumental pieces and songs in order to keep the textures varied, and even within the instrumental category there were seldom two consecutive selections with the same instrumentation.
For example, the opening Byrd/Morley "Earl of Oxenford's Masque" found the viol, lute and recorder exchanging fast-running answering lines. In the following "What Then Is Love But Mourning" by Rosseter (the concert's "title song") tenor Elwes with just the lute in accompaniment projected the contrastingly mournful text very effectively, only to be succeeded by a Gibbons Fantasia in which two recorders romped around in a canonic game of tag, with a surprising "allargando" and some ripe harmonies at the end.
This illustrates the kind of contrasts the artists used in order to maintain a sense of variety within their rather narrow musical context.
Tenor Elwes was a constant source of pleasure. Compared with contemporary vocal techniques, his voice had little vibrato, but he still created a wide range of expression through vocal coloration, inflection, fine control of dynamic contours, and the occasional improvised roulades or flourishes at the end of a song.
In the familiar "Willow Song" his soulful projection of the woefully sad text was accompanied by lute and recorder, whose tone was not well sustained at times, diminishing the effect.
And in Morley's even more familiar "It Was a Lover and His Lass," Elwes did a fine job of pointing up the clever changing meter Morley provided on the repetitions of the phrase "the only pretty ring time."
Among the other instrumental highlights were an unusual viol solo on Tobias Hume's rather lugubrious but fascinating "Death," a nicely articulated lute solo on Holborne's "A New Year's Gift Galliard" and a gay, tight and tuneful "Jew's Dance" played by lute, recorder and the little medieval violin cradled in Eisenstein's forearm.
But despite the Folger Consort's best efforts to maintain a sense of vitality and variety, there were moments when, even for veteran listeners, everything began to sound undifferentiated. The generous two-hour program might have made a better argument for the cause at about two-thirds of that length, and might have found fewer listeners departing at intermission.
The Folger Consort
Presented by the Buffalo Chamber Music Society.
Tuesday evening in Kleinhans' Mary Seaton Room.