The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Early music group Eliza’s Toyes greets spring on a small but exciting scale with madrigals

May 9, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting that reviews a concert given this past Saturday night by the Madison-based early music ensemble Eliza’s Toyes. It was written by 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

Between the spectacular competition of the MSO’s Mahler Second Symphony (“Resurrection”), and the belated but welcome arrival of spring weather, it was perhaps not surprising that few members of the musical community attended a program of English madrigals on the first Saturday in May at the historic Gates of Heaven synagogue (below)  in James Madison Park — even a program, ironically, itself intended to celebrate spring (“Now is the Month of Maying“).

Against the massiveness of Mahler’s “Resurrection” spectacular, madrigals might seem a comedown. Yet they were a delightful and moving contrast, even antidote, to the gigantism afoot downtown.

Such craftsmanship, such wit, such elegant beauty, such fun! That was what the plucky little early-music consort, Eliza’s Toyes, offered in a tightly packed program at the old Gates of Heaven.

The menu offered a total of 20 selections of vocal and instrumental pieces taken from the vast literature of English (and Italian) music of the era of Queen Elizabeth I.

The group (below) consisted of six singers (two of whom also played recorders), plus two further instrumentalists, on lute and dulzian (early bassoon).

The program was varied, and the performances were thoroughly skilled. The singers, each with a fine voice, blended beautifully together, and clearly relished what they were doing.

The sparkplug and director of the group, Jerry Hui (below, front row left), is an amazing young musician, specializing in avant-garde composition, but with a love as well for the music of the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

He himself can sing in almost any vocal range (I expect to hear him as Strauss’s “Zerbinetta” shortly!), but he also brings true scholarly research and artistic sensitivity to what the Toyes do.

Now finishing his UW training, Hui faces new job prospects either here or elsewhere, but he vows to keep the group alive and active.

What the Toyes represent is another example of the tremendous vitality and diversity of Madison’s musical life. Such life does not revolve only around the big-ticket organizations. It includes the wonderful enterprise of small “fringe” groups, as well. Other than the Toyes, who else is making available the fabulous vocal consort music, both secular and sacred, of the 16th and 17th centuries on a regular basis?

Conventional promotion is hard to come by, so music-lovers need to keep a weather eye out for announcements of such valuable events as this one. It was not for any lack of quality that this concert was so sparsely attended.

Posted in Classical music

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