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Café Concert: Fretwork

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VIDEO: Fretwork Performs in the WQXR Café

The English viol consort Fretwork had much to celebrate as it entered its 25th anniversary season last year. It had, by most all accounts, taken an esoteric, 15th-century bowed instrument -- the viol -- and placed it higher in the public’s consciousness than could ever be imagined.

Along with two-dozen recordings of Renaissance and Baroque music, the group had worked with contemporary composers like Tan Dun, Michael Nyman and George Benjamin; collaborated with pop artists like Elvis Costello and Robbie Williams; and was frequently featured in films – among them, Jim Jarmusch's “Coffee and Cigarettes” and “Broken Flowers.”

But in March 2011, tragedy struck when Fretwork co-founder Richard Campbell took his own life at 55, the product of depression that he had been fighting for many years. Three months later, Susanna Pell, a member for 23 years, left the ensemble. Liam Byrne, a viol player and musicologist with an active freelance career in London, succeeded her, but the events left the members shaken. They made the decision to continue on as a quintet, at least for the time being.

“This last year has been obviously a very turbulent one for us,” said Richard Boothby, the group’s bass viol player and arranger. “There’s been a lot of change and with consort music that’s quite difficult. The way in which you play together can be easily upset.” He added: “It’s taken all year to reestablish equilibrium. But I think we’ve found it now.”

Fretwork makes its long-awaited debut at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall on Wednesday night with a program that Campbell was working on before his death called “Musick’s Monument.” It centers on a selection of airs, fantasias and madrigals inspired by 17th-century musician Thomas Mace’s 1676 book on the music scene, Musick’s Monument. Boothby said the performance serves as a tribute to Campbell. “Had he been alive he would have been here so it’s got poignant memories for us,” he said.

On a pragmatic level, the Carnegie program contains works in three, four and five parts but the ensemble has been forced to put aside its six-part viol pieces for now. (Unlike a string quartet, viol consorts come in varying sizes.) Among the works shelved is a new arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which was recorded for Harmonia Mundi in 2011. “That’s been a bit difficult because we would have wanted to play the Goldbergs in Carnegie," noted Boothby, "but with five it would have been another rearrangement and we decided to do this more core repertory."

Whatever Fretwork's long-term plans bring, Boothby said the ensemble will continue with its efforts to expand the repertory for viols, which now includes some 40 commissioned pieces. In October at London’s Wigmore Hall, it will premiere a new piece by the young New York composer Nico Muhly, written jointly for Fretwork and the Hilliard Ensemble.

Meanwhile, in the WQXR Café, the group showed what makes their ensemble -- comprised of treble, tenor and bass viols -- so unique: a kind of delicate, ethereal sound that may never be achieved on modern-day instruments.

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text: Brian Wise