Although love and death seem to occupy spaces at opposite ends of the spectrum, they often have more in common than one might think. It’s a sentiment echoed by the Musicians in Ordinary, who presented “John Donne on Love & Death” at Heliconian Hall on March 7. The program was full of divisions, whether it was songs of love in the first half and death in the second, or Donne’s wedding poem interspersed between songs.
The evening was a little sparser than usual, with just soprano Hallie Fishel, lutist John Edwards and guest Seth Lerer, who read Donne’s wedding poem in its original pronunciation. But the smaller group allowed the material to really shine through with fewer distractions, and each person rose to the challenge of making their part as strong as possible. There were no bodies or voices to hide behind, with the spotlight squarely on each individual at any given time.
Lerer, Distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of California at San Diego, in particular, stands out as one of the best guests the Musicians in Ordinary have selected for their performances. His reading of “An Epithalamion, or Marriage Song on the Lady Elizabeth, and Count Palatine being married on St. Valentine’s Day” was rich, authentic and engaging, giving the 402-year-old text a freshness that would make it seem not out of place in today’s literature. If there can be anything to nitpick about this aspect — and really, this is a very tiny thing and completely subjective — it’s that placing two songs in between each reading of the poem made it a tad difficult to follow the continuity of the text.
But listening to Lerer was indeed a pleasure, especially because one got the sense that he truly enjoyed, and was completely immersed, in what he was doing. The same can be said about Fishel, who really seemed to take extra enjoyment in her music for the night. She regularly radiates happiness during Musicians in Ordinary performances but on this night, there seemed to be an extra level to it. Her voice was clear and strong and easily heard throughout Heliconian Hall, and she managed to keep up a good volume while still enunciating the differences in forte and piano, glissando and pronounced articulation. “Time stands still” (John Dowland) and “Greefe keep within” (John Danyel) were especially good renditions, with the former very smooth and indicative of the silkiness of the highs of love and the latter almost palpable in its mournfulness.
With such strong performances from Lerer and Fishel, Edwards stuck out as being several notches below. His music wasn’t particularly complex or challenging, and yet there seemed to be at least a couple of instances in each of his solo pieces where a string was plucked fuzzily, his fingers touched on a wrong note or the timing seemed off. The type of music he was playing was very straightforward, with on-the-beat quarters, eights and sixteenths and little syncopation, and it was puzzling how there could be so many missteps. Further, his tendency to tune his lute after every single piece was a little frustrating to hear, as it really broke up the smoothness and continuity of the evening. The temperature in Heliconian Hall was fairly steady throughout the two hours and Edwards has shown this constant need to tune often enough that it can’t be blamed on new or slippery strings.
Given the denseness of the program, presenting each half as a separate performance might have been the better idea. The recitation and singing were of a tremendously good quality but when there was so much of it, its beauty tended to get diluted as the ear became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it. However, it was an interesting contrast to balance out the highs and lows of love and death, as the two opposites are so very often seen strolling down the same corridors.