Early Music Group Gives Tobias Hume A Tenuous Charm

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Les Voix Humaines devoted a program to Captain Tobias Hume, the colorful Shakespeare-era composer, viol player and soldier.Early Music Vancouver photos by Jan Gates.
Les Voix Humaines devoted a program to Tobias Hume, the colorful Shakespeare-era composer, viol player and soldier.
(Early Music Vancouver photos by Jan Gates.)
By David Gordon Duke

VANCOUVER – A significant Vancouver summer success story is its annual Early Music Festival, courtesy of Early Music Vancouver, which also presents an ambitious season of events throughout the year.  The Festival includes nine concerts this summer, all but one on the leafy campus of the University of British Columbia.  A July 31 performance by Montréal-based Les Voix Humaines showed how early music both is and isn’t breaking out of old practices in a Janus-like quest for broader audiences and ever more detailed and intensive explorations of minor historical figures. After a tenure that began in 1979, much-loved EMV executive director José Verstappen stepped down two years ago, handing over the organizational reins to Matthew White. White has naturally made some changes, most notably adding overarching themes to the Festival concerts. Last year it was “Time”; this summer, “Music for Queens. Concerts under that banner are particularly diverse: everything from a presentation by medieval music group Sequentia at the final concert, scheduled for Aug. 7, to a program exploring Brahms’s Die Schöne Magelone in commentary and music that utilized a late 19th-century piano.

Gambists Little, left, and Napper, founders of Les Voix Humaines - a certain devil-may-care insouciance.
Les Voix Humaines founders Little, left, and Napper: devil-may-care insouciance.

The Festival has stayed true to its longstanding mandate to explore the byways of historical repertoire, amply demonstrated in its presentation of The Queen’s Delight, a program of music by Tobias Hume. The concert was performed by Les Voix Humaines, brainchild of gambists Susie Napper and Margaret Little; the group, which began in 1985, has a long association with EMV, one of the many productive links between early music communities in Vancouver and Montréal. (It helps, too, that Québec’s Conseil des arts et des lettres offers a level of support for artists and organizations that makes funding elsewhere in Canada seem decidedly chintzy. Québec’s largesse has been Vancouver’s gain for years.)

Hume's dedication reveals his soldier trade and music passion.
Hume’s dedication reveals his soldier trade and music passion.

Tobias Hume lived from 1580 to 1645. Identified by the program as “a mercenary soldier by trade,” Captain Hume was evidently quite a character. But was he a composer worthy of an entire evening of music? Obviously the ensemble, which has recorded his works for Naxos, thinks so. Hume published two volumes of music and may well be responsible, according to the program notes, for “perhaps the first ever mention of the use of col legno (roughly, bashing the strings with the wood of the bow).” His fondness for word painting and other onomatapoeic effects has obvious appeal, as does the suggestion that  he might have been the prototype for Sir Andrew Aguecheek (“a fashionable, feeble fop,” according to Napper) in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

The show was an integrated proposition encompassing songs, dances, and instrumental pieces. Programming secular work from the early 17th century has its challenges: an avalanche of smallish pieces can easily generate listening fatigue. Here the strategy was to group the works as sets, introduced by Napper from the platform with quotes from the blustery Hume. There was particularly effective use of a mutable ensemble, which at its largest ran to three viols of various sizes, two lutes, recorders, percussion, and singer. The singer was countertenor Michael Taylor, whose flashy presence gave strong seasoning to both halves of the program. The Queen’s Delight was anything but a vocal recital with instrumental backup; Les Voix Humaines took pains to keep Taylor’s work within the context of what might have been an actual Elizabethan era entertainment.

Lutists Sylvain Bergeron and Nigel North (Jan Gates)
Lute players Sylvain Bergeron and Nigel North: extremely stylish playing.

Napper and Little perform with verve and extravagant style: great lashings of effective (if exotic) bowings, nice synchronization, and a certain devil-may-care insouciance. They know exactly what they wish to accomplish, and it is hard to fault their commitment and obvious historical acumen. Gambist Mélisande Corriveau complements the original pair of players exquisitely and plays recorder as well. Protean instrumentalist Grégoire Jeay extended textures with recorder, Renaissance flute, and percussion. Two first-rate lute players, Nigel North and frequent Festival guest Sylvain Bergeron, added extremely stylish playing. Their demonstration of the value of the lute—a rejoinder to one of the Captain’s more extravagant claims of the supremacy of the viol da gamba—was in fact the evening’s musical highlight. Inevitably the focus on a single composer exposed the less than stellar quality of some of Hume’s work. It didn’t help that many in the audience recalled the estimable work of Hume’s great near-contemporary, John Dowland, presented last season in a remarkable program by countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Thomas Dunford. A full evening of Hume’s proficient but too-rarely inspired compositions showed the type of narrow academic focus more at home in the seminar room than the concert hall.

For 'Tobacco,' countertenor Michael Taylor donned a dressing gown.
For ‘Tobacco,’ countertenor Michael Taylor donned a dressing gown.

The quasi-theatrical presentation seemed a ploy designed to appeal to the less musically sophisticated, a dubious attempt at contextualization unnecessary for specialist audiences and not quite effective enough for the general public. Staginess turned coy, even arch, on too many occasions. For “Tobacco,” countertenor Taylor in a dressing gown with pipe was an affable enough conceit. But his delivery of “The Hunting Song” in linguistic drag with dropped “aitches” and rustic accents failed to charm, as did Hume’s music, heavy on effects but light on real musical values. It didn’t help that three of Taylor’s numbers celebrated the decidedly politically incorrect joys of smoking, hunting, and war. Is it meaningful to talk about a generation gap in the early music movement? Astonishing young players now take authentic instruments and practices as an absolute given of 21st-century music making; yet some veterans of the struggle are still tilting at windmills. The Queen’s Delight ultimately seemed an uneasy attempt to blend incompatible elements: an intense, old-school focus on a relatively unknown composer of interest to a niche audience, and a more contemporary, populist desire to use this repertoire to amuse, if not edify, a broad public. A gallant try, but not quite a success. David Gordon Duke contributes reviews and essays to The Vancouver Sun and American Record Guide. He is academic coordinator at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College, and also teaches at the University of British Columbia.