"Converting concert halls to classrooms and classrooms to concert halls," Boise's own Darkwood Consort is a rara avis. With the distinction of being "the world's only touring viola and bass clarinet duo," Darkwood Consort churns out serious music with lighthearted, accessible attitude that sets them apart from your usual chamber music ensemble.
Founded by Aage Nielsen and his bass clarinet in 1992, Jennifer Drake and her viola became Darkwood's other half in 2001. Preferring to focus on medieval and modern classical music, with a lot of that music being of Scandinavian origin, Darkwood Consort leaves most of what comes between to other ensembles. Perhaps setting the tone for their professional association, Nielsen and Drake's first Darkwood performance together was their "'73 Vintage" show, in which they dressed up in goofy polyester Seventies garb and proceeded to put on a polished chamber music set. It is the juxtaposition of playfulness with professionalism that makes Darkwood unique.
Darkwood Consort is, for purposes of simplifying recording and touring, the duo of Nielsen and Drake. At their various performances around the Treasure Valley, though, Darkwood Consort is more collaborative; they might pick up a flute here or a bassoon there, and the group is frequently joined by fellow musicians like Karlin Coolidge (flute) and Donovan Schatz (bassoon), along with a roster of other local guests. Besides rehearsing as Darkwood Consort four times a week, both Nielsen and Drake play with the Boise Philharmonic, and both give private music lessons. They're their own administrative staff, researching and writing grants, marketing, looking for new venues, outreaching to schools and developing/administrating their Web site. Both Nielsen and Drake are self-motivated and keep each other focused in order to accomplish what needs to be accomplished.
What, people may ask, is the significance of the name, "Darkwood Consort"? "Darkwood" to reflect the low instrument tone sound, and "Consort" because it gives the ensemble a flexibility-unlike "Darkwood Duo" or "Quartet," "Consort" can mean two people, or seventeen. It doesn't take long to find that Darkwood is more flexible than just its name. Defying the expectation of stuffiness from chamber music, Darkwood's local concerts might begin with friendly, informal banter from the group. Drake can be seen making the rounds, shaking hands with random audience members before performances, thanking them for coming to the show, and they might joke with the audience or pause a moment to share background information on a piece they're about to play. Drake describes the Darkwood Consort experience, with its mix of musical professionalism and easygoing fun, as "user-friendly classical music," cerebral but not snobby. "People are looking for some sort of relevant musical experience," she says, and Darkwood reaches out to audiences to make their performances comfortable, happy and fun.
Fun seems to be very important to Darkwood Consort. At a recent performance in Detroit, they were compelled to launch into (once Detroit locals) the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" before beginning their rehearsed classical program. Darkwood is completely comfortable juxtaposing modern garage rock with medieval Danish music, and they sound good doing it.
Because they are quite pro-Scandinavian (both Nielsen and Drake are part Danish) and Nielsen is a visible figure in Boise's Scandinavian community, much of Darkwood Consort's core audience is, unsurprisingly, Scandinavian. (In fact, the Scandinavian Society of Southwest Idaho frequently caters intermissions at Darkwood's Sunday concerts series at the Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy.) Different people come to different performances, Nielsen and Drake say, but the Scandinavians come loyally to everything. Other loyal fans are people that were watching Darkwood perform in coffeehouses in the early Nineties, fans that have since turned out to be some of Darkwood's biggest supporters today. When asked about their favorite audience, neither Drake nor Nielsen can decide. Home concerts are facilely comfortable. Doing classroom outreach is fun because the kids are curious about the instruments and techniques and have no preconceived notions about what classical music is supposed to be. But then, of course, there's touring or playing gigs around the country and the world. The answer seems to be: it's all good stuff.
Though they're serious musicians, the members of Darkwood Consort don't seem to take themselves too seriously. Music is the (professional) life of both Nielsen and Drake, and they seem to think it should be as enjoyable as it is pervasive. They're doing what they love and if you aren't, Nielsen suggests, then you're in the wrong line of work. On March 13 at the Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy, Darkwood Consort celebrates the group's thirteenth "birthday" with a Bar Mitzvah concert. Neither Nielsen nor Drake is Jewish, but the Synagogue will kindly be providing refreshments. Darkwood's biggest news right now is that in June they will be performing at the 33rd International Viola Congress in Reykjavík, Iceland. (The fundraising concert was February 20th--for details, check their Web site-but Darkwood is still taking donations.) Participating in the Viola Congress is akin to playing in the classical Super Bowl.
Having released one CD, Tro og Haab Spiller, Darkwood Consort will soon be releasing another album, Café Musik, which they describe as wildly divergent, ranging from medieval to country music. CDs can be purchased locally at the Record Exchange or the Co-op, or online at Amazon.com.
The Darkwood Consort Web site (www.darkwoodconsort.com) is extremely thorough. There is information about Darkwood's core and satellite members, a schedule of upcoming concerts, tours and engagements, facts about their recordings and links to reviews, profiles and other media coverage. Anyone with interest in finding out more about Darkwood should check it out.
Playing everything from international gigs to their local concert series, from concert halls to classrooms, weddings to corporate events to private parties, Darkwood Consort goes anywhere and everywhere, always attended by their singular style. And they are extremely popular for it-Boise loves Darkwood. Still, Nielsen muses, they don't get many weddings. They would really like to do more weddings.