There are precious few things worth spending a spectacularly beautiful Sunday afternoon indoors for, and if you’d told me that one of them would be a recital by the Wayward Sisters of a program called “Ashes, Ashes: Music and Plague,” I’d have said it wasn’t possible.
And I’d have been wrong. The Wayward Sisters–Beth Wenstrom on baroque violin, Anne Timberlake on recorder, and Anna Steinhoff on baroque cello–joined by honorary wayward brother John Lenti on the theorbo (a giant lute)–put on a spectacularly beautiful show inside the lovely Community Church of Christ on a Sunday in late spring a year ago. As you might have guessed, the program featured music by baroque composers whose lives were touched, altered, and sometimes ended by the last outbreak of the plague in Europe. The music itself was only lightly touched by the plague because, being baroque music, it is stylistically some of the most extravagantly expressive music written in the last five hundred years.
The Sisters were totally up for it and deeply into it. Each is an amazing virtuosa, and it would be hard to pick a favorite. Not only could Wenstrom execute the most fearsome runs with breathtaking ease, she could make the most singing tones come out of her violin without ever resorting to anachronistic vibrato. Then there was Timberlake’s preternaturally persuasive recorder playing, sweet most of the time, stinging the rest of the time, and sensitive all of the time. And let’s not forget Steinhoff, no mean soloist herself, whose soulful cello is the rhythmic heart of the group. Backed by Lenti’s swinging theorbo, the Sisters wailed on a program that would have intimidated lesser musicians.
As for the music, it was a mixture of Italians Giovanni Fontana, Tarquinio Merula, Dario Castello, and Salamone Rossi and Englishmen Matthew Locke and Henry Purcell. Some works featured the recorder, others the violin, and some both–and those were the best, because listening to Wenstrom and Timberlake trading lines above Steinhoff and Lenti’s supple but solid rhythm section was enough to make me forget all about how beautiful it was outside.
On September 30, the Wayward Sisters will be back to open the Academy of Early Music concert season at St. Andrew’s Church. This time, they’re bringing a program as distinctive as their last one: featuring some of the composers from the plague program along with composers such as Handel and Nicola Matteis, it’s titled “The Naughty List: Music of Braggarts, Snobs, Curmudgeons and Jerks.”
“Another [naming] option for the same program had been ‘Copper-Nos’d, Sparrow-Mouth’d, Goggle-Ey’d: The Music of Difficult Men,” explains cellist Steinhoff. “But we decided that Difficult Men might be off-putting to some guests.”