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Countertop: Baroque With Added Depth - Washington Post (Joan Reinthaler) Link

The Countertop Quartet has added a mezzo-soprano, two tenors and a bass to its original two-soprano, two-countertenor makeup and recast itself as the Countertop Ensemble. This was a good move. They joined forces with the Washington Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble on Saturday at the Universalist National Memorial Church near Dupont Circle for a program of Venetian music of the early baroque period that was delivered with serious attention to detail.


Director Chris Dudley (one of the countertenors, who conducts as he sings) has collected a group of eight fine singers who blend and balance beautifully and who understand the idiom. In intricate madrigal and motet settings by both Andrea (the uncle) and Giovanni (the nephew) Gabrieli, Adriano Willaert and Heinrich Schuetz, they sang with an easy, straight delivery that kept textures transparent and lines nicely shaped. It was only in the highly elaborate rhythmic modulations of a couple of the madrigals that a firmer hand on the conducting tiller might have kept things smoother.

The "cornett" in the instrumental ensemble bears almost no relation to the modern cornet. Dating from the 15th century, it is slightly bent, usually made of wood with finger holes like a recorder's and a mouthpiece a little like a trumpet's. Played well (as it was, here, by Stanley Curtis) it sounds like an exceptionally clear human voice. Sackbuts (early trombones) also sound lighter and more human than their modern version, and there were times in this concert when the two ensembles complemented each other well. Too often, however, particularly in the Schuetz "Veni Dilecte" for four low voices and sackbuts, the singers ended up wallowing in the instrumental sound.

Countertop: DC's Early Music Groups join to Pass the Hat - Washington Post (Charles T. Downey) Link
The Washington Early Music Festival is doing its best to endure uncertain financial times. To raise money for the 2010 festival (which will focus on France), seven groups and one soloist donated their talents for a gala benefit concert Saturday night at St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill, a hodgepodge that was entertaining, often lovely but overall unspectacular.

Among the vocal selections, the Countertop Consort gave the most consistently beautiful performance, with eight voices evenly balanced in a section of Tallis's "Lamentations." The Hebrew letters before each verse, likely because of their exotic inscrutability, inspired the composer to create some of his most mysterious and imaginative music -- rendered here as luscious vocalises, unfurled like the whorls of a manuscript's elegantly illuminated capital letters.
Ewell Concert Series impresses audience with classical performance - From the College or William and Mary, The Flat Hat (Taylor Schwabe) Link
The lights dim and the audience hushes. A tense but anticipatory silence pervades the room until one man’s voice suddenly comes out from behind the balcony organ. More and more voices join until there is a full ensemble of disembodied voices filling the darkness. The song concludes, and the group moves solemnly into sight. Thus began the Feb. 8 performance by the Countertop Ensemble, the third installment in the Ewell Concert Series.

Yes, you read that name correctly: Countertop Ensemble. No, they won’t be leading a rousing song from atop your kitchen counters. Nor do they have anything to do with countertops. Actually, in true TWAMP fashion, the name was created as a play on words — the group originally contained two countertenors and two sopranos (the top voices). The group now includes four different voice types, singing a repertoire spanning five centuries, entirely a cappella.

Hearing the voices fill every inch of the space, I could hardly believe that only eight people were singing; the sound was so full and strong that it easily could have been a full choir. The quality of the group’s singing was nothing less than superb. The sense of control over its notes and lovely tonal quality encouraged many audience members to sit back with their eyes closed, just letting the music wash over them. The ensemble actually gave me chills with their clear and hauntingly beautiful harmonies. If at any point the singers made a mistake, I certainly didn’t hear it.

The ensemble’s performance seemed to be designed to enshroud the group with an air of intrigue and enigma. From ensemble member’s initially disembodied voices to the performers’ (mostly) solemn faces, the show was highly dramatic. This feeling was also perpetuated by the way the singers arranged themselves; they almost always stood in some variation on a circle, providing a sense of intimacy between the vocalists — a privacy in which the audience was lucky enough to be included.

The Countertop Ensemble titled their program “From Darkness to Light,” a name reflected in the visual elements of the show, which began with the lights dimmed, although the second part of the program saw the lights slowly raised until the final song “Loquebantur,” when the lighting filled the room.

Also adding to this dramatic effect was the event’s venue. The performance was held in the chapel of the Sir Christopher Wren Building, the perfect architectural counterpoint to the singer’s soaring voices.

At most vocal concerts — or at least the ones I’ve been to — the ensemble stands, and sings, and waits for applause; then the ensemble sings again and stands some more. There’s nothing wrong with that formula; it keeps things simple and focused on the music. The Countertop Ensemble, however, did things differently — namely, they moved.

Instead of their songs being broken up by applause the ensemble asked that the audience hold applause until the end. Each piece was followed by some movement through the space, accompanied by a vocal chant. By the end of the concert, the group had moved from behind the balcony organ, downstairs, directly in front of the audience, to the altar, and back up to the balcony again. At first the movement was confusing — there were a few perplexed glances being exchanged during the first few changes – but it added visual interest.

Lamentably, there were more than a few empty seats in the house — a shame for such a brilliant performance. The audience was comprised mostly of older members of the community rather than students. All the same, if the tumultuous applause and standing ovations that concluded the show were any indication, the Countertop Ensemble was loved by everyone lucky enough to have attended.
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