The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Eliza’s Toyes ventures into early Spanish music with professionalism and artistry

February 7, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special post that reviews a concert. It is by a frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker . Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

On Sunday afternoon, most of Madison was fussing over some big sports game — football, I think. But I, and some thirty or so other Madisonians, were enjoying an example of what makes our city’s cultural life so lively.

At the historic Gates of Heaven synagogue (below) on East Gorham Street, in James Madison Park, we heard a delightful concert given by the vocal consort Eliza’s Toyes. (Its name is an allusion to the tributes made musically to Queen Elizabeth I of England.)

Mustered for the occasion were eight singers — the majority of them UW students, and mostly in voice three of whom also played instruments (recorders and dulcian). They were joined, too, by Douglas Towne, an established freelance master of lute and Baroque guitar.

The concert was preceded by a short but valuable slide lecture by Prof. Steven Hutchinson of the UW’s Spanish & Portuguese Department, on the history and culture of Seville, the city with which the music to follow was closely identified.

The program proper, entitled “The Treasures of Seville”, contained a generous array of 22 selections by composers of the “Golden Age” (El Siglo d’oro) of Spanish music, from the late 15th century through the 16th. There was a balanced mix of sacred and secular pieces, in ensemble, solo and instrumental renditions.

The ambience naturally suggested either a small chapel or a salon, and the singers were handsomely matched and balanced — with one or two of them per part in the larger scorings. There was a high level of professionalism and artistry in evidence, thanks in no small measure to the group’s founder and organizer, Jerry Hui.

Hui is one of those human dynamos, distinguished as much for versatility as for energy. Currently a UW graduate student in composition, he is ferociously skillful in a wide range of music, from “early” to contemporary avant-garde. He can sing in almost any voice range, he plays a mean recorder, and he is an efficient ringmaster and coordinator for the group.

Eliza’s Toyes (below, Jerry Hui in bright red shirt at left of the front row) is very much an outgrowth of the Madison Early Music Festival. It was in the course of the 2007 festival that Hui began to draw young singers around him for what he called “ad hoc readings” of old vocal music, gatherings that soon lead to the idea of a formal performing group.

Their repertoire has concentrated on madrigals and vocal consort music, ranging in language traditions beyond English to French, Italian and also Latin material.

This latest concert was their first full venture into Spanish literature. It was a pity that snow that morning, and sports distractions, limited the audience turnout. A small group like this tends to be kept “under the radar,” with too little access to the promotion and publicity it deserves.

Be it noted, therefore, that the group’s next concert will be presented, also at the Gates of Heaven, on Sunday, May 7, at 7:30 p.m., concentrating on English madrigals but adding Italian ones, especially some brought to England.

Just what will be the future of Eliza’s Toyes after the departure of Hui, and others, as studies end, is uncertain for now. But there is hope that a successor can emerge to carry on his leadership. Their spirit is too vital to be extinguished, and they perform a precious service in presenting live performances of literature not otherwise regularly heard.

And, moreover, they are a reminder of how much the Madison Early Music Festival has sparked the expansion of growing access to, and continuing enjoyment of, the vast literature of music dating from before the “standard” repertoire.

Posted in Classical music

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