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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 23.0° F  Overcast
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The Toronto Consort kicks off the Madison Early Music Festival with songs from Leonardo da Vinci's Italy
The Toronto Consort's program included music-making and storytelling.
The Toronto Consort's program included music-making and storytelling.

This week marks the 15th anniversary of the Madison Early Music Festival (through July 19). To celebrate, it will explore Italian music from 1300 to 1600, a fascinating time of discovery for the arts and sciences. Within those centuries, Columbus sailed to America, Copernicus proved that Earth wasn't the center of our solar system, and Leonardo da Vinci painted his famous Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

The Toronto Consort, an octet of multitalented musicians, opened the fest on Saturday at Madison's Luther Memorial Church with a survey of music from the time of Leonardo. The church was packed, despite predictions of bad weather.

After a welcome from the Madison Early Music Festival's artistic directors, Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and Paul Rowe, the consort began its musical journey into the world of Leonardo with songs and dance music, beginning with his birth in Vinci in 1452 and extending to the years his adventures as an inventor, scientist and painter took place. After the intermission, the musicians explored music from Leonardo's time in Florence, to the Battle of Marignano in 1515, and finally to his death in France in 1519.

The concert was performed against the backdrop of three of Leonardo's paintings: the Mona Lisa, the Portrait of a Young Man (perhaps musician Franchino Gaffurio) and Lady with an Ermine (Cecilia Gallerani).

What impressed me about the Toronto Consort was how naturally their singing and playing brought the audience into the music and life of the Renaissance.

Tenor David Fallis, the consort's artistic director, narrated the program, which was part music-making and part storytelling. The story highlighted Leonardo's humor and humanity. It was taken, in part, from Leonardo's manuscripts, thousands of pages that were bound after his death into huge collections called codices. Hence the catchy title for the evening's program: The Da Vinci Codex.

Ben Grossman, who played the hurdy-gurdy and percussion, kept a lively beat, even through the syncopations in the many dance music numbers. It was easy to imagine Leonardo dancing with friends or perhaps playing for the dancers on his favorite instrument, the lira da braccio. I wondered if there was a relentlessness in Renaissance life while listening to the long, complex melodies in dance pieces like "Istampita ghaetta," which had recorder expert Alison Melville playing nonstop.

The vocal music, nicely performed by sopranos Michele DeBoer and Katherine Hill, tenors David Fallis and Paul Jenkins, and bass John Pepper, had a graceful farewell at the end of every phrase that is only in Renaissance music. Sometimes Terry McKenna accompanied the soloists with delicate lute playing. The singers also performed some intricate word painting, but unfortunately some of it was lost due to echoes created by the high ceiling and marble surfaces in the church.

When the program, deftly conceived and scripted by musical storyteller Alison Mackay, came to an end, the crowd begged for more with a long standing ovation. The consort came back to the stage to present a funny love song with tongue twister of a title: "Lirum, bililirum."

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