Slattery & La Nef bring “Dowland in Dublin” to Toronto

The concept was discovered almost by accident. At a Christmas Party a few years ago, members of La Nef attempted to play the music of John Dowland as though he were Irish. It turns out that there’s evidence that Dowland may have been an Irishman, and that the experiment could have been the authentic sound of the composer.

click for information about the CD

That’s the basis for the 2012 CD “Dowland in Dublin”, a series of songs.  Some are instrumentals, some are sung by Michael Slattery in collaboration with La Nef, arrangements by Seán Dagher, Sylvain Bergeron and Slattery. I was thrilled when I heard that the Toronto Consort were bringing “Dowland in Dublin” –meaning La Nef & Slattery in concert –to Toronto: tonight at the Trinity St Paul’s Centre.

The numbers alternate between instrumentals and vocals, between syncopated dance tunes and more introspective songs such as “His Golden Locks”, a meditation upon our mortality where Slatter accompanies himself on a shruti box (an Indian instrument that by a curious coincidence makes sounds resembling a bagpipe, and therefore seems apt).

The song (which you can see and hear Slattery perform in this video, but minus La Nef) concludes with these lines:

Beauty, strength, youth are flowers but fading seen;
Duty, faith, love are roots and ever green.

Lovely as the CD is, the live performance is a huge thrill, as we can see them improvise, and we recognize that the music will be a bit different when they offer this concert on Saturday night. Sylvain Bergeron’s lute playing is sometimes whisper soft, sometimes a bigger sound, but always seeming to emerge as fresh as the expressions on Bergeron’s face. Seán Dagher on the cittern underpins everything, both with the steady throb of his playing, or with the stomp of his feet, his strumming attack resembling the percussion section. Alex Kehler plays violin –in a characteristic early-music style minus the vibrato—often lending a wonderfully celtic sound to the melodies, as does Amanda Keesmaat from her cello. And Grégoire Jeay on flute or recorder had the ability to put a smile on every face in the hall, especially in the triptych of Kemp’s Jig /Mistress Winter’s Jump / My Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe.

I’ve never heard anyone make this music sound so fresh, so alive. At one moment –during “Say Love if Ever Thou Didst Find”—I swear I thought I was listening to Led Zeppelin, given that we were in exactly the same key (a minor) as “Stairway to Heaven” with similar sonorities in play, while Jeay played his recorder alongside Bergeron’s Lute.   That back and forth between A minor and D roughly 45 seconds in reminds me of Zeppelin.  Now that may sound odd to mention, but although we were in Toronto’s temple of early music –the home to both Tafelmusik & the Toronto Consort, complete with a welcome introduction at the beginning from David Fallis–the concert’s mood was altogether different.  We could have been in a pub given the absence of pretentiousness in the music-making.  Accomplished as the players were, this was a very relaxed affair.

The majority of the songs concern love. Slattery is in the moment throughout, La Nef seeming to invest each song with the impression of having invented their response on the spot, played perfectly but always seeming freshly conceived, with an electricity in the eye contact between each of them. The live performance is better than the CD, different every time.

We would have closed with “Now, O Now I Needs Must Part”—did Dowland ever use it to close his gigs I wonder?—were it not for their generous response to our applause, namely the encore “Come Again”. Slattery opens slow & soft in the first verse alone with his shruti box, joined by the ensemble for faster subsequent verses. It’s a microcosm of the concert, from the soft beginning to Bergeron’s concluding strum on his lute.

Slattery & La Nef are on to their next project which hopefully will bear fruit soon. In the meantime there’s another chance to hear “Dowland in Dublin” Saturday night here in Toronto.  I suppose i am a bit hesitant because i’ve written so much already about Slattery & La Nef, but i have to say that this was a wonderful concert, that the playing is hypnotic, beautiful, and the singing as lovely as anything i’ve ever heard.

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