La Rondinella Makes Musical `Dreams' Come True: Quartet's Unique Concert to Include Medieval Songs, American Ballads

By Longaker, Mark | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 15, 1996 | Go to article overview
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La Rondinella Makes Musical `Dreams' Come True: Quartet's Unique Concert to Include Medieval Songs, American Ballads


Longaker, Mark, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Thirty years ago, Howard Bass, co-founder of the early-music crossover quartet La Rondinella, was selling home-baked bread on Georgetown streets from a backpack to make his rent.

These days, he spends most of his time listening to musicians who want to perform traditional American music at the National Museum of American History. He does a lot of this from a narrow, windowless office, piled high along the walls with books and pamphlets, deep within the museum's administrative warren. Listening there to tapes and CDs sent him by the many aspirants to Smithsonian music programs, the program coordinator for the Division of Cultural History decides who will appear in the museum's annual "American Sampler" series, or at national festivals or on Smithsonian Folkways recordings.

Tomorrow, with the 9-year-old La Rondinella (which takes its name from a Thomas Morley song that means "the little swallow" in Italian), he will play more than traditional American music at Silver Spring's Unitarian Universalist Church in a concert called "Sleep, Dreams, and Winter Awakenings." Elizabethan love songs, English and American ballads, medieval sacred works, country dance tunes and seasonal pieces comprise the eclectic program, which has one common thread that Mr. Bass explains.

"We use the instruments that we're most comfortable with to play the music that we like. When they match up and it works, it's great," he says.

"A so-called purist of early music probably won't like our concerts. They'll probably say, `Gawd, these guys are all over the place. Why don't they just decide to do one thing, play one instrument?' "

* * *

The sword dance medley on the program offers a good example of how the group interprets its repertoire: Because sword dances are a living tradition, there is no prescribed or official instrument on which to play the music. It's just whatever sounds best for the occasion.

Tomorrow, Mr. Bass, 49, will play some on lute and some on button accordion, since those are the instruments he was learning while he was absorbing the sword dancing tradition from the residents of Bluemont, Va.

Living on a communal farm atop a ridge in the Shenandoah Mountains near Bluemont during the 1970s, Mr. Bass did a lot of sword dancing and even wrote mummer's plays, touring them around the Washington area every December.

The tradition of sword dancing probably began in Europe during the 16th century. It assumed its present form about 100 years ago in mummer's plays celebrating the winter solstice - the shortest day of the year and spring's harbinger.

The dances pantomime the symbolic death of one year and birth of a new one. Typically, dancers will raise their interlaced swords in a star formation over the head of an encircled dancer, who represents both death and life. Then they lower the star around the center dancer's neck and tighten the blades around it. When they withdraw their blades, the dancer falls, symbolically beheaded, and is revived by a dancer posing as a doctor.

Thus a new year is born, and the revived dancer joins the others in celebration. This solstice material corresponds to the "Winter Awakenings" of the concert's title.

* * *

Of Rondinella's four members, Tina Chancey is probably the most versed in early-music instrumentation and performance rhetoric. Also a co-founder of another early-music crossover group called Hesperus, she plays a surprisingly diverse arsenal of bowed strings.

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