Scrag Mountain Music will begin the new year with a program of Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music, however, the first work on the program will be contemporary. “Situation,” a song from the larger work, “Song Cycle,” is by Matthew Ricketts, a Canadian-born composer who teaches at Columbia University.
“Most of (Ricketts’) poem is about pre-Baroque early music and early-music instruments, and how we are drawn to early sounds,” explains Marshfield soprano Mary Bonhag, co-artistic director of Scrag Mountain Music.
“It just opens up the idea of modern people deciding we want to go back and play these old instruments and play this old music — and bring it to life more or less how it may have been performed at the time of its composition.”
Bonhag, who met Ricketts while both were fellows at the Tanglewood Institute last summer, pointed to one humorous line:
“Ornament a line to be spontaneous yet informed, to care to be these things yourself. Always ornament a plain countenance.”
Scrag Mountain Music, central Vermont’s innovative professional classical music organization, will present “Joy, Pleasure and Sweet Nourishment: A Concert of Early Music” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 11, at Bread & Butter Farm in Shelburne; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12, at Christ Episcopal Church in Montpelier; and at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13 at Warren United Church.
In addition to Ricketts, the composers featured will be Jean-Baptiste Barrière, John Dowland, John Eccles, George Frideric Handel, Guillaume de Machaut and Henry Purcell. Joining Bonhag and her husband, Evan Premo, double bass, viola da gamba and co-artistic director, will be Paul Holmes Morton on theorbo, lute and Baroque guitar, Priscilla Herreid on Baroque oboe and recorders, and Michael Unterman on Baroque cello.
“Even more than our past early-music concerts, for this one we are going farther back — by not having a harpsichord,” Bonhag said by phone recently. “By not having a keyboard instrument, we are limited in the rep that we can do, which is a great limitation. We’re doing a lot more Medieval music, Renaissance music than we’ve done in the past.”
Much of the program is devoted to vocal works, including well-known Dowland songs with lute.
“I have done his lute songs before, but what I haven’t done before, that I’m really excited to learn more about are these Machaut Medieval pieces, which is a whole new world opening up to me,” Bonhag said. “Part of the inspiration of this program, as always with Scrag, is for Evan and me to explore to explore areas of our instruments and repertoire that we are curious about.”
Not only does this program give Premo the opportunity to play viola da gamba, he will also play his second bass, a German instrument that he has set up with period-appropriate gut strings.
“He also just recently bought a Baroque bow, so now he has a legit Baroque set up, which he’s really excited about,” Bonhag said.
Part of what makes the Machaut intriguing is the mixed meters and other freedoms, unlike the rules of harmony, rhythm and meter that came about during the Baroque period.
“What’s fun about those pieces is they’re flexible,” Bonhag said. “You can do them in any key, you can do them with any voice type; they can be accompanied or they can be unaccompanied, so there’s a lot of flexibility.
“One of them is polyphonic — it’s three voiced — but all the others are single voice, so we’ll either keep them as a single voice or add some instrumental accompaniment to them,” Bonhag said. “We’ll figure that out during the (rehearsal) week.”
The vocal writing is instrumental in style, simple and not melismatic (more than one note on a syllable).
“You could imagine a recorder playing all of the tunes which is also what you will hear happening,” Bonhag said. “The one-in-three parts does have melismas, but most have syllable-by-syllable settings. They’re dances, so it’s not luscious, full, rich singing.”
The virtuosity comes, not in the singing line, but in the language of the text.
“I’ll be singing in old French, Medieval French, so not only are the words spelled differently, and actually are different than they are in modern French, but they are also different pronunciations,” she said. “So, for me, one of the biggest challenges is getting my mouth around these old French words.”
Bonhag picked up some of the old French words over her years of vocal study, and others from “trustworthy” recordings.
“And I’ve reached out to some of my early-music aficionado friends,” Bonhag said. “It’s all a bit of a guess. I’m doing what I think is scholarly appropriate, but I do know there is a lot of flexibility.”
Also on the program are two Purcell songs, which she performs with recorder. Handel’s cantata, “Venus and Adonis,” she will perform with Baroque oboe.
“Because the manuscript was unfinished, it’s unclear exactly what instrument it was written for, whether it was oboe or violin,” Bonhag said. “Scholars think perhaps it was written for a particular violinist.”
The remainder of the program will be instrumental. The Eccles bass sonata (originally a flute sonata) will be adapted as an ensemble piece. And for the Barrière double-cello sonata, Unterman will be joined by Premo, playing the second cello part on the double bass.
“The whole program is connecting French and English music,” Bonhag said, “music across the English Channel in various times, from pre-Baroque and ending with the Handel.”
All Scrag Mountain Music concerts are “Come as you are. Pay what you can.”