LEWISTON – Maine has received due recognition from the Viola da Gamba Society – New England, which has awarded a performance grant to a consort of five players, including one from Lewiston.

Although the viola da gamba seems an obscure instrument that has somehow survived its Renaissance past, it evokes a passion and spirit of fellowship in those who play it. Barbara Oliver of Lewiston, who started as a cellist and continues to play in the Lewiston-Auburn community, said she was hooked on the exotic instrument the first time she played it nearly 20 years ago. Since then, she has become involved in viola da gamba societies wherever she has traveled and lived and quickly found cohorts in Maine.

“It’s an instant way of getting involved with the community,” said Oliver. “I’ve never done anything quite like this before.”

The consort players, all serious musicians prior to picking up the viol and meeting each other, will gather Sunday at the St. Francis by the Sea Episcopal Church in Blue Hill to perform as part of the 10 a.m. church service.

The church choir will join the consort in performing anthems of the Elizabethan period. A soprano will also perform a poem of Ben Jonson set for viola da gamba consort by Ferrabosco. The service also includes Elizabethan consort music as prelude, offertory and postlude.

Each year, the Gian Lyman Silbiger Grant based in Massachusetts is awarded to viol players for the presentation of rarely performed sacred music in the context of a regular church service, according to a newsletter written by consort member Mark Nordberg of Litchfield. Most of the grants awarded over the past two decades have gone to groups in Massachusetts with a few in Connecticut and New Hampshire.

Lorna Russell of Stockton Springs, who serves as minister of music with her husband at the Blue Hill church, said she was quickly steered to Oliver when she got the idea of applying for the grant. Besides Russell, Oliver and Nordberg, other consort members are Allen and Julie Clayton of Sedgwick.

“There’s a resurgence of interest, and people are being captivated again by it,” Russell said. “It’s a very seductive sort of instrument. I don’t know why. Part of it may be the fellowship of it.” Russell explained that viol players go by the philosophy: have viol, will travel. They find each other throughout the state to play in informal and intimate settings.

While many music lovers may confuse the viol with the cello of the violin family instruments, it’s actually more like a guitar, said Russell. The six strings and frets and an underhand bowing method make playing easier and more controllable with the fingers.

It was widely popular in the 16th century England and continued to thrive after Italian and French musicians replaced it with the louder violin and cello, said Oliver.

“Players are relatively rare. They are usually people who really like early music,” said Oliver, who regularly attends a yearly conclave held in different locations where viol players from all over the world gather for a week.

Russell noted that five musicians for this Sunday’s performance have discovered the instrument and each other through very different paths. “The five of us are a good match,” she said. “We’re serious about it, and the group is very good. But we’ve had a lot of fun so far.”


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