- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 22, 2001

The Folger Consort is bringing the flavorful music of Italy to the Elizabethan Theatre this Christmas season. Audiences can get into the holiday spirit with "La Notte di Natale: Christmas in Italy" tonight and tomorrow at Folger Shakespeare Library's theater on Capitol Hill. The sold-out show is part of a series called "Musical Landscapes," which features six chamber concerts from enchanting and exotic places. This group of concerts celebrates the 25th anniversary of the organization.

Robert Eisenstein, one of the artistic directors of the Folger Consort, says the captivating melodies of Italian composers persuaded him to highlight the country during the holidays.

"The works have a wonderful sense of virtuosity," he says. "All these pieces tell the Christmas story in a really simple and unaffected way. The pieces are not sophisticated poetry. They are charming. It is in keeping with a quiet observance with the holiday."

When outlining the compositions to perform, Mr. Eisenstein chose tunes from 14th-century Florence and 17th-century Rome, such as "Da ciel venne messo novello," which is Italian for "A new messenger came from heaven."

"The 14th-century pieces, called 'laudi,' are in the first half of the show," he says. "They were sung by lay religious fraternities from Florence. Most music from the Middle Ages was from the court or the church, but this is middle-class people's music."

During the second half of the program, 17th-century music takes over. Most of the pieces are "motets," compositions written in Latin, except for "A Travestirsi" written in Italian.

"A couple of these 17th-century pieces were written by nuns," he says. "Quite a number of nuns in the 17th century published music. It was one of the places they could have a life as a musician. As a woman, it was considered indecent to perform on the stage."

Mr. Eisenstein looks forward to welcoming back soprano Johana Arnold of Delhi, N.Y., as the consort's guest performer. Five instrumentalists will perform onstage with her in the 275-seat theater.

"She is a very dramatic and expressive singer," he says. "She has a wonderful technique. She knows the music. She can sing medieval and baroque music and everything in between."

For more than 20 years, the consort has invited Miss Arnold to perform at its venue. She started singing with the group when she stood in for a friend who was unable to perform as scheduled.

"The consort has been good to me ever since," Miss Arnold says. "Unfortunately, I came down with a case of laryngitis during the first performance. To their credit, the people with the consort were patient."

To prepare for a performance with the organization, Mr. Eisenstein sends Miss Arnold the music ahead of time. She learns the majority of it at home and arrives a few days before the show for further practice.

"Most professional singers are expected to do a lot on their own," says the trained opera singer with a 21/2- octave range. "You have to be a pretty good musician to learn it on your own. The 17th-century music is more close to baroque music. The 14th-century music is extremely early and requires a very pure tone. It stems from chant."

Miss Arnold says "A travestirsi" is her favorite piece in the program. She enjoys singing the rapid 16th notes.

"On the word heaven, there is a beautiful run that goes up and down," she says. "It's a lot of fun for me."

Jane Pisano, Folger Consort manager, says those people who did not buy tickets to "Christmas in Italy" might enjoy the next concert in the "Musical Landscapes" series. "Slavic Splendor" takes place Jan. 11 and 12 at the Washington National Cathedral in Northwest.

"It includes rustic dance music and powerful sacred chants of three separate traditions, Polish, Czech and Hungarian," she says. "Renaissance winds and strings will be heard with a vocal ensemble from Warsaw, Poland, called Il Canto."

For more information, contact the Folger box office at 202/544-7077 or go online at www. folger.edu.

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