Ensemble Ibérica completed its fourth season with the second annual presentation of “The Kilmore Carols,” a 250-year-old Irish tradition with ancient Spanish inflections. Balancing the serene with the rustic, the musicians connected these 18th century works with the folkloric tunes of the Ozarks.
Artistic director Beau Bledsoe assembled an eclectic quintet of specialists for Saturday’s concert in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. A noted guitarist whose repertoire ranges from Renaissance to the Texas Two-Step, he also played oud and Baroque guitar, together with Baroque cellist Trilla Ray-Carter, soprano Victoria Botero, fiddler/vocalist Betse Ellis and Clarke Wyatt on banjo in an informative and lively presentation.
They began with three selections from “The Kilmore Carols,” a collection of Irish works performed in the area of Wexford, written by Father Peter Devereux, who studied in Spain and brought back with him those Iberian timbral and melodic influences. “The Darkest Midnight in December” featured Botero singing the long, arcing line, gracefully ornamented, against a simple accompaniment and the violin’s raw, open sound, while “Ye Songs of Men with Me Rejoice” contrasted Ellis’ straight-toned proclamations to Botero’s rounded delivery. The meandering melody and droning harmonies of “Christmas Day is Come,” however, suffered from insecurities, resulting in pitch problems.
A set of traditional American tunes featured Ellis and Wyatt, the duo rising and falling together on the gentle sonorities of “The Quail is a Pretty Bird.” Wyatt then gave a brief tutorial on the history of the banjo (he used four different styles) and demonstrated the instrument’s abilities with chunking rhythms and melodic plinking harkening to its African roots in “Lost Gander/Christmas Goose.” Adding in Ray-Carter and Bledsoe, Ellis exclaimed “we got ourselves a string band now!” for “Cherry Tree Carol,” a traditional British Isles tune. A rousing Appalachian tradition “Breakin’ Up Christmas” encouraged outright toe-tapping to the shout-n-holler dancing tune, Ellis playing more confidently on her fiddle than she had on the borrowed Baroque violin.
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The “Cantigas de Santa Maria” came from the multicultural court of Alfonso X in 13th century Castile and the musicians entered a different realm in time and timbre. In No.257 Bledsoe and Wyatt shared an extended, chant-like line that pushed and pulled organically over Ray-Carter’s drone. The band was more rambunctious and the accompaniment more textured in No. 100 making it difficult to hear Botero on the melody, especially in a dark, throaty vocal range.
They returned to the carols with “The First Day of Christmas” in a more comfortable, resonant range for Botero and subtle, atmospheric accompaniment. Despite interesting contour and timbral combinations, “Song of Jerusalem” was, unfortunately, incoherent and unsteady. “Now to Conclude Our Christmas Mirth,” though, featured a winding line with nimble decorations.
The traditional waltz “Roses of Ava Moore” celebrated Missouri-style fiddling in the string band again and the concert finished with the Irish “Wexford Carol,” bringing the journey of centuries to a satisfactory and well-rounded conclusion.