SEATTLE — “The Baroque Meets Drag.” With a subtitle like that, everyone who attended Pacific MusicWorks’ A Concert with The Countess Oct. 7 and 8 in Seattle’s intimate Rabbit Box Theatre performance, dining, and drinks venue or saw the video of bass-baritone John Taylor Ward’s mash-up of Purcell and Miley Cyrus knew that some combination of serious musicianship and royal camp was in store.
Nothing, however, prepared me for how delightful and engaging the evening would be. Center stage stood, sang, bantered, and pranced the towering bass-baritone. Not only is Ward a direct descendent of the French-English lutenist, songwriter, and art expert Nicholas Lanier (1588-1666) — the Master of the King’s Music to England’s Charles I, amasser of the backbone of the British National Gallery’s collection, and composer of the first English monody, Hero and Leander — but he is also a dedicated early-music vocalist and the creator of a drag persona that, on this occasion, manifested as The Countess.
Ward and The Countess developed the program with Pacific MusicWorks’ founding artistic director, lutenist, and guitarist Stephen Stubbs and his two co-artistic directors, baroque violinist Tekla Cunningham and harpsichordist Henry Lebedinsky. As ideas emerged, Ward recruited superb dancer-choreographer Tshedzom Tingkhye to perform to some of the instrumental and vocal numbers. With the aid of choreographer Anna Mansbridge, who found copious inspiration in early 17th-century dance notation, a cabaret-like program took form.
The Rabbit Box Theatre’s layout, with a raised stage area surrounded on three sides by different levels of two and four-seater tables for patrons and a bar off to one side, contributed to the performance’s uniqueness. Having heard the Takács String Quartet perform in Manhattan’s Le Poisson Rouge and Emerald City Music perform in its Seattle coffee-bar location, I’ve come to expect that somewhere during the performance, a noisy compressor will give lower-pitched string instruments a run for their money.
But I never expected a dancer as accomplished as Tingkhye to occasionally leave the performance area, dance between tables, and join hands with the lead artist to jointly dance and prance through vocal numbers. Nor did I ever dream I’d discover a grand Countess looking directly into my eyes from two feet away as she moved through the audience and sang, with perfect technique and intonation, Purcell’s “Hark how all things” from The Fairy Queen.
The program began, virtually without warning, as Cunningham launched into the Prelude and Giga from Ayrs for the Violin, Book 1, by Nicola Matteis and Tingkhye began to dance. Next entered The Countess, as Cunningham and her fellow musicians — viola da gambist David Morris, baroque harpist Maxine Eilander, Stubbs, and Lebedinsky — provided support for Ward’s rendition of Lanier’s “No more shall meads.”
In short order, the program proceeded through music by Campra, Cesare Morelli, Purcell, Michel Lambert, Santiago de Murcia, Handel, and Thomas D’Urfey. Artistically, several things became apparent. Pacific MusicWorks’ musicians are world-class. Stubbs sounded exciting on guitar at the start of Matteis’ gorgeous Ground after the “Scotch Humour” from Ayrs for the Violin, Book 4, and Cunningham’s playing was brilliant.
As strong and accomplished a singer as Ward may be, his bass-baritone tended to project the same color throughout its wide range. Despite a palpable intention to soften and sweeten in certain passages, his instrument could communicate only so much. One of the program’s highlights, Lanier’s famed monody, Hero and Leander, didn’t touch deeply, and some of the more joyful numbers relied more on shtick than vocal color to get their message across. A case in point: The instrumentalists in Purcell’s “Hark how all things” sounded more jubilant than Ward as he expertly vocalized on the word “Rejoice!”
Nonetheless, in a program where one surprise and delight followed the other, one hardly wished to be moved to tears. Nor did anyone expect The Countess to strip down to her undergarments in Lambert’s “Vos méspris chaque jour” from Ayrs. As much as Handel’s “I rage, I melt, I burn / O ruddier than the cherry” from Acis and Galatea could have benefited from warmer highs and more vocal resonance during its low reaches, it was clear that Ward had chosen to make his point by other means as he camped through the lyrics in the Countess’ red-bow-highlighted white underwear.
If anyone releases standalone video of the final number, D’Urfey’s “My thing is my own,” it could become a Baroque viral sensation. As the Countess pranced around while making every intention in the lyrics as clear as could be, the audience spontaneously joined in on the refrain, “My thing is my own and I’ll keep it so still / Yet other young lasses must do what they will.” You had to be there.