“Should auld acquaintance be forgot...” Each New Year’s Day, thousands of people join in traditional chorus to this hallowed strain, yet very few are aware of the origin of these beloved lyrics – the pen of Robert Burns. Considered Scotland’s national poet, Burns began penning his poetry at the completion of the 18th century, seeking to preserve Scottish folk songs while adapting them to newer audiences. This weekend, the Newberry Consort decided to celebrate Burns’ mammoth legacy in a special themed concert centering around Burns’ songs but also focusing on musical works influenced by the Scottish bard.

Newberry Consort Director David Douglass
Newberry Consort Director David Douglass

Since the initial concert advertisement mentioned that Barsanti and Geminiani would also be on the program, I was expecting a well-balanced concert of Burns songs and refined 18th-century music. Also, having been to many period instrument concerts before, I was expecting “polite”, refined entertainment. Instead, works as mentioned above were nowhere on the program, and I was treated to a more folk-like selection. Halfway into the first half, I was also caught off-guard with a collage of bawdy lyrics, often on the racy side, within Burns’ cantata The Jolly Beggars – a total contrast to the more poetic, refined Italian and French Baroque arias that I have studied and have come to associate with 18th-century singing.

Thankfully, this racier section of the concert made way for a more delightful mirage of familiar Scotch folk tunes with text by Burns and others, masterfully arranged for period instruments, voice, and narrator. Outside of the brief reference to two bawdy Burns songs within instrumental-only numbers, the rest of this part of the program was “G-rated”. Though this was again more in line with a folk concert setting rather than one of a typical period instrument concert, I found this take rather charming and unique, albeit challenging to decipher with the heavy Scotch dialect and vocabulary. Hence, I would have appreciated more explanation of the folk songs and/or a modern English libretto handout, as had been the case with The Jolly Beggars. The small yet well-arranged ensemble, consisting of harpsichord, Baroque flute, Baroque strings, soprano voice, and narrator, merrily giggled and tinkled along, delicately expressing the utmost sentiments of each touching text. Soprano Ellen Hargis – one of Chicago’s foremost Baroque divas – lent her clear, vibrato-free voice to the melodious strains of each song, while narrator Paul Hecht smilingly gave a guttural, genuine Scottish growl to his readings. Meanwhile, Baroque violinist David Douglass executed each intricate run with gusto, performing in a style that would raise the eyebrows of “serious” violinists and the envy of such top-notch fiddlers as Charlie Daniels.

The crowning achievement of this program, however, was a most exquisitely and delicately rendered version of Alexander Munro’s sonata Fy, gar rub her o’er wi’ strae, masterfully performed by Baroque flautist and special guest soloist Leighann Daihl. Though I later discovered that this lovely theme and variations sonata – a true Baroque work, unlike the Burns songs, yet turning to Burns for inspiration – is based upon a bawdy Burns song, the piece itself and Daihl’s rendition were highly refined in the tradition of Barsanti and Handel. In her première performance with the Newberry Consort, Daihl’s shimmering playing proved her a master of her gentle, subtle instrument, conjuring up images of whirling Scotch dancers mixed in with the signature refinement of European Baroque. Each variation of the tune was most tenderly and meticulously rendered, with each ornament accenting the main melody like tastefully placed ornaments upon a glistening Christmas tree. Daihl’s performance alone made my night, dazzling me with utmost Baroque éclat and bridging the gap between the more folk-like program and the more serious historically informed Baroque style that I had initially been expecting in this program.

In the end, although I was still overwhelmed and bewildered by the evening’s hard-to-decipher Scotch dialect, the absence of the more serious Baroque works initially advertised online, and the unexpected bawdiness of The Jolly Beggars, I walked away pleasantly satisfied with the program as a whole, most notably the second half. I had been able to enjoy the program once I re-framed it in my mind as a folk concert and Burns tribute, with barely anything having to with the Baroque outside of the Munro sonata – a true Baroque work based around a folk idiom. More notably, upon post-concert reflection, the concert taught me about another keystone aspect of musicology: The unavoidable and obvious influence of folk music in high-society music. Though most of the concert had absolutely nothing to do with this statement, the two Baroque sonatas based upon the Burns songs cemented in my mind that one cannot neglect turning to folk music for both inspiration and analysis within historically informed performance practice and all early music. Furthermore, the usage of “standard” Baroque instruments for the performance of “lighter” and more folk-like repertoire – a move which initially puzzled me – confirmed the validity of this conclusion. So, should old acquaintance – meaning, connecting folk songs with more serious music – be forgotten? Absolutely not!

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