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Review: A CHRISTMAS MESSE: A BANQUET OF SEASON ENGLISH MUSIC at Folger Shakespeare Library

Review: A CHRISTMAS MESSE: A BANQUET OF SEASON ENGLISH MUSIC at Folger Shakespeare Library

I have a confession: I have a soft spot for string instruments. So I may have been partial to Folger Consort's performance even before setting foot in the building.

That said, you don't need to be a former orchestra student or an expert on early English music to love Folger's latest offering, A Christmas Messe. Folger Consort masterfully blends music and theatre into a beautifully satisfying evening that is enjoyable for all.

The Consort's musical selection for this year's holiday performance showcases festive English music dating from the 13th Century through the early 20th Century. The concert is a tour through English history and music, an evolution that brings out the familiar and fun for all music lovers. The atmosphere is perfectly set by Folger's Globe-inspired decor highlighted by simple lights and wreaths - it's easy to imagine this performance existing at any and all of the time periods featured.

The music itself is delightful, but the musicians and singers that comprise the Consort are a marvel. Featuring a vielle, a viol, recorders, a lute, a citole, an organ, a trombone, and even a bagpipe and bells, the Consort's reliance on early musical instruments, even for the more modern pieces, creates a distinctive and lovely sound. Each member, impressively, handles more than one instrument with ease, and joins in on the singing as well. The quintet of singers blend wonderfully, and their solos give each a deserved opportunity to shine.

The musical performance would have been enjoyable in its own right, but Folger's decision to intersperse the songs with selected scenes from the comedic 17th century play, A Christmas Messe, elevates the evening. The play tells the story of Belly, who is hungry for the Christmas feast, which has been delayed due to King Beef's dastardly plot to usurp King Brawn (boar's meat) from the ceremonial position as first dish for the feast. The story, told in the style of a heroic tale and a power struggle for the throne, is resolved when Cook intervenes to settle the matter. The kings, Belly, and Cook are all hilariously portrayed by the charismatic Rick Foucheux, and the members of the Consort fill in as the supporting cast of condiments (sauce, mustard, etc) as well as to cheer on King Brawn and call out a chorus of "boos" while King Beef plots.

The result is a pleasing blend of music and comedy, of laughter and peaceful appreciation. It's clear the players are enjoying themselves as they perform, and the audience is happily invited to join in the cheers, boos, and even the rendition of "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" (all lyrics, it should be noted, are provided in the program for the audience to follow along). Altogether, Folger Consort produces a sweet, joyful evening.

Put simply, Folger Consort's A Christmas Messe is a feast for the soul. Dig in, and enjoy.

A Christmas Messe plays at Folger Shakespeare Library December 14 through December 23.

Photo Credit: Brittany Diliberto

Pictured: Folger Consort, with Rick Foucheux in the foreground.



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