United States Far Beyond the Sea: Members of The Early Folk Band: Steve Player (guitar, vocals, dancer), Gesine Bänfer (bagpipes, cittern, vocals, frame drums), Ian Harrison (winds, vocals, Gothic harp); Members of Apollo’s Fire: Amanda Powell (vocals, percussion), Brian Kay (plucked instruments, vocals), Tina Bergmann (hammered dulcimer), Baroque Music Barn, Hunting Valley, Ohio, 7.6.2019. (MSJ)
Far Beyond the Sea: Folk Ballads from the Old World
One of challenges that the early music ensemble Apollo’s Fire characteristically gives itself is experiences that push the stylistic range of its members. In this concert, the exercise combined comparison and contrast, and still allowed the ensemble to unite compellingly as a group. While music director Jeannette Sorrell did not perform, she did help make some of the arrangements, and no doubt helped shape this summit of early music insights.
In contrast, the guest artists were the British ensemble The Early Folk Band, consisting of Steve Player, Gesine Bänfer, and Ian Harrison. Make no mistake, this was definitely a challenge, for the British group approaches this repertory not as a high art ensemble, but as a troupe of entertainers. For them, the storytelling and dancing are as important as the music, and there was little attempt to exist in the same rarefied air of Apollo’s Fire’s perfection and precision.
Considering the repertory, though, this might have been a healthy influence, encouraging the performers to push the boundaries of precision a little more than usual. And the collective range of the combined groups was impressive, moving from low comedy to high tragedy with verve.
The moment of greatest doubt was at the beginning of the moody ‘Willow Song’. My first thought was that Amanda Powell’s plush voice was simply too grand for this simple but dark ballad. Yet it never pays to underestimate Powell’s commitment. By the end of the song, one was fully drawn into its lovelorn narrative by Powell’s urgency and intensity. The beauty of her voice became merely incidental, rather than an inhibiting factor.
Among the folk singers, Ian Harrison is their strongest vocalist, typically taking the roles of young men and heroes in the songs, and with a downright elfin glee. He is also quite a wizard at various wind instruments, particularly the plaintive Northumbrian pipes, a smaller and more introspective cousin of the great Highland bagpipes, and was also effective on the Gothic harp.
While Harrison’s colleague Steven Player had the least polished voice, he was the one most willing and able to leap into character roles, whether a comically grotesque hag or a strutting sailor. As a dancer, Player’s abrupt knee-drops as a dancer were a wonder to behold, and a reminder of how much early folk music was centered on dance. His stamina would shame many half his age.
Brian Kay moved effortlessly from classical poise to boisterous rumpus, depending on what constellation of performers was in play. His versatility seems limitless, with no drop in intensity from one style to the next. He is also a rare force: a singer equally strong as a player of plucked instruments. He was able to sing convincingly aside Harrison and Player in a sea shanty, while taking quieter solo moments elsewhere with poise.
Tina Bergmann’s hammered dulcimer and Gesine Bänfer’s contributions as instrumentalist, arranger, and singer fleshed out this piquant evening, ranging from Robin Hood songs to those drawn from the Arthurian traditions of the British Isles. The Baroque Music Barn is an actual barn on a private estate in Hunting Valley, Ohio, in which Apollo’s Fire has appeared every summer for two decades. The rural venue was perfect for this lively celebration and left the capacity audience exhilarated.
Mark Sebastian Jordan