Steve Rosenberg and friends dip into their trove of early music instruments 

Ancient Harmonies

Ever heard a darbuka, riq, or agogo bells played? You will at Brio's show

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Ever heard a darbuka, riq, or agogo bells played? You will at Brio's show

Rate this professor: He's a feted recording artist, world-touring musician, recipient of France's coveted Grande Prix de Disque, and chair of the music department at the College of Charleston. He's the early music world's equivalent of a rock star, and since he plays centuries-old melodies, his instrument of choice isn't an electric guitar. Instead, it's a favorite of schoolchildren everywhere. He's Steve Rosenberg, known to medieval and Renaissance music fans as the "Pied Piper of the recorder world."

For his June 10 Early Music performance, Rosenberg will be playing multiple instruments as part of the Brio quartet. Although the Spanish tunes on the playlist date back as far as the 1400s, Rosenberg insists that the show will be "a very accessible, varied, beautiful concert."

Brio is a lively foursome of first-rate musicians: Rosenberg, percussionist Danny Mallon, string player Mary Anne Ballard, and vocalist José Lemos. Since getting together in 2002, they've toured extensively and made two CDs with Dorian Recordings called Romance and Sol y Luna. The group will gauge the reaction of the crowd as they select percussive and instrumental dances from their repertoire. "There's so much in our CDs," Rosenberg says. "We have many different programs. I'm looking forward to jamming into a whole big selection."

Brio focuses on the secular music of the Sephardim, Jews of Medieval Spain. Over three centuries of core dances, romances, and rhythms from surrounding countries are incorporated into the mix. If there are any religious touches, they're just in passing. "I don't know who wrote them," Rosenberg says. "Some were sung by historic communities. It's hard to date them."

Audiences will recognize some musical hints from operas and urban Arabic beats. "The Spanish sound reminds people of the origins of flamenco, and it's influenced by a Middle East flavor," Rosenberg says. "People who have no clue about its origins still find it wonderful." That's probably because Brio gives a tight, organic performance that the professor describes as "playing with friends."

CofC alum Jose Lemos is a star in his own right. Originally from Brazil and Uruguay, he's a counter-tenor opera singer who'll be in Nice, France, the day before the concert, performing a Handel solo. He will fly in, rehearse with Brio, and, as Rosenberg puts it, "have a good time."

Mary Anne Ballard plays viola da gamba and rebec (a bowed string instrument) with Brio. She's an important figure in early revival circles, an arranger of early music and part of the Baltimore Consort, which Rosenberg guests with. They've known each other and worked together for more than two decades.

Danny Mallon bangs a mean caxixi, a percussion instrument that's essentially a basket filled with seeds. He also plays a variety of percussion instruments, including the doumbek, darbuka, bodhran, riq, agogo bells, jingle bells, finger cymbals, shaker, and woodblock. The versatile musician's in demand all over country, but he's best known to Spoleto audiences for his "Drums through the Ages" shows. He's also played with the College of Charleston Concert Choir and Madrigal Singers.

Despite the bewildering array of early instruments, Brio appeals to modern audiences thanks to a natural rhythmic sound — and they avoid the dry, stoic performance style of Dark Age lore. They won't sell out and go electro either. "You can hear people play electric music and take many different approaches," says Rosenberg, who also plays renaissance guitars. "We've heard people try to be Arabic. We know the idiom pretty well, but we don't want to replicate the original sounds exactly. We have one foot in classical, one in folk. We make it what we can without putting artificiality into it, and it feels great."

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