Strings battle brass

11pm, Saturday, June 13, Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory

In general the Saturday late night concert at BEMF features the
singers who’ve been singing together in the opera all week
singing lighter fare of the country associated with the opera —
german drinking songs if it was a German opera or bawdy catches if
it was an English one. This is usually arranged by Steven Stubbs,
who also conducts the opera.

This year, because they were doing three different operas and
the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610, Steven Stubbs said someone else
should do the Saturday late night concert. So Robert Mealy, the
long-time concertmaster of the BEMF orchestra, set up a concert
with instrumentalists (and some dancers) performing two-choir
music of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. (It wasn’t all
originally written for two choirs, but since back they basically
thought that anything worth doing at all was worth doing twice,
having one choir do it the first time and the other do it the
second is a bargain-basement way of making it two choir music.)

The stage was set up with 4 strings (Robert Mealy and Julie
Andrijski, violin; Laura Jeppesen, viola; and David Morris, viola
da gamba and violoncello) on the audience left. There was a continuo group
(Peoebe Carrai, violoncello, who may have played with the string
group on some five-part music); Avi Stein, harpsichord; Charles
Weaver lute and guitar, and for somed pieces Danny Mallon on
percussion) in the middle. And the Dark Horse Consort (Kiri
Tollaksen and Alexandra Opsahl, cornetto; Greg Ingles, Eric
Schmalz and Mack Ramsey, trombones), mostly
playing brass, but once they did all pick up recorders,
was on audience left.

The program began with a set from the Venetian 2-choir
repertoire, by Giovanni Gabrielli, Giaches de Wert and Biaggio
Marini. As a recorder and early brass player, I would like to
tell you that the winds duelled the strings and won, but that
wouldn’t be true. I don’t think the brass did anything as
affecting as Robert Mealy’s tender solo in the Marini Balletto
Secondo in the entrance of the second theme.

This does not mean the Dark Hors Consort isn’t a good brass
consort. Robert Mealy probably knows who taught the teacher of
his teacher’s teacher. If he can’t go back to the sixteenth
century, it’s because we don’t have the records, not because the
tradition doesn’t go back that far. The two cornetto players both
learned from Bruce Dickey, who learned by reading treatises.
There is an advantage to having a long tradition of exciting
performance of your repertoire on your instrument.

The next set was from Northern Germany, by an english expatriot
whose friends probably called him Bill Brady when he was growing
up, but in Germany he worked a Wilhelm Brade. Particularly
interesting was the Paduana XVI, where instead of
strings playing against brass, the low strings played with the
high brass and vice versa.

Then there was the Holborne set, which had a bass drum giving a
funereal character to the Pavan: Spero, followed by
a sprightly Fairy-round.

Finally, 8 dancers entered, wearing costumes from the 2013 festival production
of Handel’s Almira. The music for this set was the little-known
country dance settings from Praetorius’
Terpsichore. The concert concluded with the
Volta, where the men lift the women high in the air,
and are rewarded by seeing (and possibly even feeling) “more than
the ankle”.

In spite of the late hour and the exertions of the preceding
week, this high energy concert left the audience feeling exhiliarated.

Monteverdi Vespers of 1610

The ambitious program of the 2015 BEMF of presenting 3
Monteverdi operas
and his Vespers of 1610 was well-received by the BEMF audience —
all of those productions were sold out. So those of us with
tickets got to feel fortunate relative to the long line of people
waiting in line or holding “I need one ticket”
signs. There was a lot of anticipaatory excitement as we found our
seats.

This production chose to use the forces available to Monteverdi
in 1610: 10 singers, continuo, 4 strings and 5 brass players.
There is some speculation that he wrote the work for his
job-hunting portfolio rather than for actual performance in
Mantua, but it’s likely that at least some of it was performed in
Mantua, with those forces.

The readers of this magazine will want to know about the
recorder playing. There is one movement (the Quia
Respexit
from the Magnificat) which does include parts
for 2 recorders. You would expect the two cornetto players to
just pick up recorders, but in fact they did something more
complicated. One cornetto player, Alexandra Opsahl, did pick up a
recorder, but so did one of the sackbut players, Greg Ingles. The
reason for this became evident a couple of minutes later — they
still needed two cornetti, so the other cornetto player, Kiri
Tollaksen continued as a cornetto player, but Mack Ramsey, who
spent the rest of the week playing bass sackbut, picked up a
cornetto. Brass players who believe that you can’t possibly play
two different size mouthpieces should take note that both the
sackbut and the cornetto sounded fine when Mack played them.

In any case, the recorder was used as it usually is in this
period, to create a pastral, contemplative mood for the words, “He
has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid. For behold, from
henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

The Boston Early Music Festival Vocal Ensemble has developed
into a very flexible, well-balanced, and well-blended group. I
especially liked that in this performance the alto-range parts
were sung by both a male countertenor (Reginald Mobley,
replacing Nathaniel Medley) and mezzo-soprano Laura Pudwell. I
think groups that sing the top line with female sopranos and all
the other parts with men can’t get as good a blended sound as if
you include both man and women on the middle parts. BEMF hasn’t
yet carried this to the point of using female tenors, but hiring
some mezzo-sopranos is a start.

While they’ve succeeded in getting voices that blend quite
well, they don’t yet have voices that are equally comfortable with
early 17th century ornamentation techniques, so there were several
places where one voice is supposed to echo another and they
sounded like the echo was low-fidelity because the second singer
wasn’t as adept at the diaphragmatic articulation as the first
one. This is definitely a minor quibble, when many ensembles have
singers with completely different vibrato and vocal timbre.

Another aspect of baroque performance that BEMF is famous for
is the continuo. The flexibility of the large continuo forces was
part of the effectiveness of this performance — the movements
with smaller vocal forces used only chamber organ (Avi Stein) and viola da gamba (Erin Headley), whereas
the ones with all 14 singers singing added the rest of the continuo
group: two chitarroni (Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs), Baroque harp (Maxine Eilander), and double bass (Robert Nairn).

Speaking of echoes, that was one of the fascinating things to
watch in this performance. Most of the singers who had to echo
someone else just went offstage and sang from there, but the
cornetti stayed onstage, but the echoing player turned her back to
the audience, so that her playing sounded farther away while she
could still have eye contact with the rest of the ensemble.

Boston has seen a number of performances of the Vespers, and
there are numerous recordings. This one seemed fresh and
interesting in ways I wasn’t expecting.

Renaissonics: Polyphonic Groove

June 9, 2015, New England Conservatory of Music

Renaissonics has been performing for more than 20 years, with a
broad repertoire of Renaissance music from simple dance tunes to
elaborate chamber music. The members are solo performers in their
own right, and can improvise virtuoso ornamentation as well as
putting across the simple tunes of the dance repertoire with
beautiful phrasing and rich variation of tonal colors.

For example, the first piece on this program, So ben mi
cha bon tempop
, is known to recorder players as
Questa Dolce Sirena in Van Eyck’s collection. The
tune appears in Negri’s Gratie d’Amore, and
Renaissonics takes the Orazio Vecchi 4-part setting as their
starting point. They start with a version with the G alto
recorder on the top line, finishing with ornamentational
fireworks. There’s also a very contemplative lute solo version, a
verse with lute and contra-bass recorder, one with violin and
cello duet, and a conclusion with the whole ensemble together
again.

The program continued with several more selections from the
Renaissance dance repertoire (Caroso and Praetorius). They then
played three of Ruffo’s Capricci in Musica,
including La Gamba in Tenor where a C bass recorder
took the “tenor” line with the long notes in the middle line and the cello and fiddle
did the decorative outer parts. They used a bass crumhorn on the
bass line of La Danza. The next group included “Se
l’aura spira” by Frescobaldi, demonstrating how well players who
normally play earlier polyphony can shift to playing really
inventive continuo. The program concluded with a Spanish group,
finishing with Riu, Riu Chiu where the tambourine
percussion is augmented by the Cuica, an instrument that produces
something like a wolf howl. In our era, the cuica is associated
with Brazilian Carneval music, but there are references to it in
the 16th century, so it isn’t so very anachronistic.

The encore was O rosetta, che rosetta from
Monteverdi’s Scherzi in musicali of 1607, with a
particularly beautiful violin variation.

One conclusion recorder players can take from this variety of
orchestration is that good renaissance recorders can hold their
own with other instruments. There’s a tradition of always using
the smaller recorders on the top line when there are so-called
“louder” instruments in the ensemble, but Renaissonics will often
use a tenor recorder on a middle line with a violin playing above it.

I hadn’t heard Renaissonics play since the last Boston Early
Music Festival two years ago. Their ensemble is better and their
arrangements more inventive and liberated. This is really
something to remember when listening to younger ensembles that
have been playing together for only a couple of years — ensemble
playing is something that really gets better with practice.

  • John Tyson — recorders, pipe & tabor, crumhorn
  • Douglas Freundlich — lute, cuica
  • Laura Gulley — violin
  • Daniel Rowe — ‘cello
  • Miyuki Tsurutani — harpsichord, recorders, percussion

Disclaimer: This reviewer takes recorder lessons from John
Tyson, eats Miyuki’s cooking regularly, and has drunk beer with
most of the other members of the ensemble. (That last admission
is unnecessary — you really wouldn’t want to read reviews of
early music concerts written by people who hadn’t drunk beer with
early music performers.)

Infusion Baroque: Who Killed LeClair?

A baroque murder mystery

June 8, 2015, 4:30 pm, First Lutheran Church of Boston

Infusion Baroque is a group of four poised and elegant
musicians based in Montreal who play baroque trio sonatas on
violin and flute with harpsichord and cello continuo. They were the winners of
the Grand Prize and the Audience Prize at the 2014 Early Music
America Baroque Performance Competition.

This concert featured two sonatas by Jean Marie Leclair (1697
– 1764) and one by his rival, Jean-Pierre Guignon (1702 – 1774).
This reviewer was not able to tell that one composer was superior
to the other — apparently neither was the employer who offered
them both jobs in the Royal Orchestra, and allowed them to share
the first chair on a month-by-month basis. One clue to Leclair’s
personality was that he accepted the job, played first chair for
the first month, and then quit rather than play second chair for
the second month. The program notes and the dramatization both
offered this anecdote as evidence that he may have been a
“difficult” person to work with.

Unlike much earlier baroque music, this was music written for
the Concerts Spirituelle, one of the first public concert series
in existence. It was inaugurated in 1725 to provide entertainment
on religious holidays when the theater and opera were closed as
too worldly for the occasion. In Leclair’s time they took place
in the Tuileries Palace, and included a mix of sacred choral works and virtuosic instrumental pieces.

Keeping the audience interested for an entire concert of only
one instrumentation and style is problematic, and there were
several strategies employed by the ensemble to do this. For one
thing, they play extremely well; their ensemble is impeccable, and
they have an evident love for the music they play. And of course
each sonata has movements in several moods, ably conveyed by the
performers in this case. I especially liked the humor of the
Badinage movement and the celebratory dancing of
the Tambourin movement (which concluded the
program) of the Deuxieme récréation de musique, and
the calm flowing of the Adagio of the G major sonata.

The composers themselves seem to have considered this problem,
and without introducing new instruments, they did bargain-basement
“Instrumentation” changes: the Aria Gratioso of the
Leclair sonata in G minor had the two solo instruments playing
without the continuo, and the Paisane lourdement
movement of the Guignon Sonata in A minor has the two solo
instruments playing in unison.

Most strikingly, they performed a little play in between pieces
dramatizing the police investigation into the murder of Leclair.
He was found stabbed to death in the entryway to his house. The
play has the police inspector interviewing the mercenary gardener, the
estranged wife, and the aggrieved nephew. Before the final piece,
they asked the audience to vote on which “suspect” they believed
committed the murder. (A large majority of the BEMF audience
voted for the nephew.)

I wouldn’t say the play was a great success as theater – while
I’d be happy to hear this group play more music, I don’t know that
I’d cross the street to hear them act another play without the
music. But I think it did successfully keep the audience more
involved in the performance.

Infusion Baroque has as one of its aims to draw a new audience
to early music by integrating chamber music performance and other
artistic media. They have performed with a live painter painting
stories from the lives of great composers, and to a slide show of
baroque visual art owned by Archangelo Corelli. This reviewer
wishes them every success with this endeavor.

Performers

  • Alexa Raine-Wright, baroque flute and gardener.
  • Sallynee Amawat, baroque violin and nephew.
  • Camille Paquette-Roy, baroque cello and wife
  • Rona Nadler, harpsichord, and inspector

Orfeo

8pm, Saturday, June 13, at Jordan Hall, New England
Conservatory of Music

Orfeo was done as a “chamber opera”, which in this case means
that there were costumes, fairly elaborate staging, a fair amount
of choreography, but no sets beyond a couple of platforms behind
the orchestra, which was onstage with the singers.

Recorder players will want to know that there’s one fairly
extensive recorder solo in this opera, played ably by Alexandra
Opsahl, who was also one of the cornetto players. It was one of
the dances in a fairly extended wedding scene. Monteverdi wrote
parts for a number of the virtuoso instrumentalists of the Mantuan
court, and they were all well-played here. I especially enjoyed
the brass choir which come out a central door backstage when they
were required. (The cornetto players were often seated in the
orchestra, but the four trombones just came out and played when
needed.) Also remarkable was the harp playing of Maxine Eilander.

The singing was beautiful; I would especially single out Aaron
Sheehan in the title role and Theresa Wakim as Proserpina. It was
also emotionally engaging — One person I talked to had heard
sobbing during Orfeo’s pleading with Caronte to take him across
the Styx in Act 3.

I would also mention the dancing of Carlos Fittante as several
different gods as a memorable contribution to the evening.

As far as the staging goes, I think they tried to go farther
than their resources warranted. One person I talked to was
especially impressed with the flowers. I was sitting in the
second row, and I never saw any flowers. A person who had been
sitting in the balcony also was annoyed at the incompleteness of
her view. Even with the best possible seat, watching the singers
in the foreground, the orchestra in the middle ground, whatever
was happening on the two platforms behing the orchestra, and the
supertitles above the action all at the same time would have been
taxing.

They justify this kind of staging because it may be similar to
what the first performance had in Mantua in 1607. But quite a
number of people were annoyed at the prices (about twice what
concerts cost) for something that wasn’t really staged. And
certainly there was no discount for seats with partial views of
the action. Jordan Hall is a wonderful place to see concerts; and
a little less wonderful for operas.

Writing from BEMF

I got complementary tickets to some very expensive events this
year because I was going to write them up for the American Recorder
magazine.

The issue with the BEMF coverage is now out, and as usual, the
very able editor, Gail Niklaus, did a very good job of editing for
length and content without distorting my opinions.

Because there was so much editing for length, I’m going to post
the originals of
a couple of articles where I think I said interesting things that
got edited for length, or in one case possibly for insufficient
reverence to the gods of early music performance.