Musicians in Concorde: Mark Levy & William Lawes

Written by: Ying Chang

How different a world is the one of Early Music? Is it simply the recreation of a past sensibility and soundworld, or does going so far back produce a musical environment that appears eccentric, even ossified? Quite evidently there is a continuity of consciousness between Romantic (let alone post-Romantic) music and now, which means we believe, correctly or otherwise, that we can ’understand’ what Chopin or Brahms or Shostakovich were ’trying to say’. When we go back to the time of Dowland or Purcell, it is evident that we need, in the most literal sense, interpreters.

Debates between specialist performers of this period’s music have significant implications as to how easily we manage to empathise with it. These questions were in my mind when I met up with Mark Levy at the inaugural evening of The Lute Club (click here for review) and, again, at the first concert of three (on 9 January) at the Wigmore Hall celebrating the 400th-anniversary of the Cavalier composer William Lawes.

Mark LevyMark Levy heads the Early Music group Concordia, which is essentially a consort of viols performing in conjunction with guest artists. A few years ago I heard him confess on BBC Radio 3 that Early Music had a quaint, rather Oxbridge-y image. Well, Mark himself comes from an impeccably stereotypical background. He is an Early Music professional by way of an upbringing in bourgeois North London and a Cambridge education that began in mathematics. He came to Early Music while tagging along with his father to a music workshop; he was offered a viol course, not one for cello.

ConcordiaAt Cambridge, Mark was one of the members of “The Cambridge Musicke”. Other members, Richard Eggar and Andrew Manze, have become stars of the British Baroque firmament, so it is no surprise that Concordia, which also includes Mark’s wife, Joanna Levine, has an excellent reputation in its field. It performs regularly with leading lights of the profession: guest artists for the Wigmore Hall series include Emma Kirkby and Robin Blaze. “We are between successful and very successful,” says Mark, pointing out that Early Music now has a more settled place in the market, albeit one that is still niche-related and probably not something to be truly mainstream.

A series marking the 400th-anniversary of William Lawes was Mark’s idea, one enthusiastically embraced by the Wigmore Hall. Lawes was the most striking musical figure during the Civil War; he put his money where his mouth was, fought for the King, and was literally “Knock’d on the Head”. This quotation comes from reminiscences of musical life of the time by Roger North, and formed the title for the first concert of the Wigmore series. Lawes wrote music of every genre, vocal and instrumental. He died fighting for the King at Chester in 1645. Relatively little is known about his life.

Mark Levy is disarmingly modest. He wears his learning lightly and has a self-deprecating charm that can easily conceal the research and musicianship that go into his professional activities. He talks blithely of being an “anorak,” about Early Music, and of the “real music” to which it can be opposed. William Lawes, Cavalier gentleman, would have approved of this insouciance. Mark refutes my glib conjecture about Lawes – I enquire if Lawes is a halfway house between Byrd and Purcell; one suddenly realises the scholarship that lies beneath Mark’s argument for Lawes’s originality. He observes: “I can write pastiches of most [of these] composers quite easily, but not of Lawes.”

On the evidence of the first (well-attended) concert of the ’William Lawes Series’, Lawes came across as a maverick, one less comfortable with musical division into public and private than Byrd or Purcell, one who wrote troubled, imaginative and sometimes disturbing music. I was reminded a little of Gesualdo in terms of the refractory originality of the music. Stylistic differences which appear gigantic to Early Music professionals may be perceived by listeners only “through a glass darkly,” to use another contemporary quotation. Mark’s erudite but readable programme notes speak of moments in Lawes’s instrumental music as reminiscent of Beethoven or Debussy. I realise that this is no conceit; again, as with a composer such as Gesualdo, there are ideas that sound eerily contemporary.

This is something that Mark clearly keeps in the back of his mind. While he does not feel the need to proselytise, his work demonstrates that he is consciously making Early Music palatable and accessible. Concordia’s press release speaks of “combining music with newly-commissioned dance, poetry and drama: most recently a set of monologues for Elizabeth I was premiered by the well-known actress Penelope Keith at the Covent Garden Festival. Other collaborations have included work with Will Kemp of the ’Adventures in Motion Pictures’ dance-company and the poet Glyn Maxwell, and future plans include a performance with Vanessa Redgrave at the Globe Theatre.”

The Lawes series will no doubt be another feather in Mark Levy’s cap. I wish him every success.

  • The William Lawes Series continues on January 24 – Concordia with Emma Kirkby – and 5 February, I Fagiolini, “A Cavalier Songbook”. Both concerts begin at 7.30
  • Box Office: 020 7935 2141
  • Picture reproduced with the kind permission of the Faculty of Music, University of Oxford

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