Early Music Celebration Reviews

October 11, 2004

Sackbut vs. Hurdy-Gurdy, and May Best Singers Win


Apples against oranges wasn't the half of it. It was soprano against tenor, sackbut against hurdy-gurdy, 13th century against 16th century, and German repertory against Guatemalan in a performance competition sponsored by the service organization Early Music America at Corpus Christi Church on Wednesday as part of the first New York Early Music Celebration, just ended.

Could the judges find any basis for comparison among the six contending groups, with their wildly varied combinations of instruments, or for that matter, among the three excellent sopranos variously presented in Spanish, Italian and French song? After brief deliberation, the judges opted for simplicity, choosing the same performers that the audience had acclaimed on the spot: Asteria, a duo of Sylvia Rhyne, soprano, and Eric Redlinger, tenor and lutenist.

Ms. Rhyne and Mr. Redlinger put across not only their music, Burgundian songs from the mid-15th century, but also a style of performance, intimate and deeply communicative. They sang these songs of love and loss as if to each other, yet drew a listener in completely, sealing the process with a meltingly beautiful rendition of Claudin de Sermisy's "Languir Me Fais."

For their efforts, they were awarded $5,000 and an appearance at the Boston Early Music Festival next spring, and that was as it should be. But you have to hope that festival representatives were on hand to recruit the other spirited and gifted performers as well, especially the sopranos Jennifer Ellis and Elizabeth Ronan-Silva, each winning in their divergent repertories and styles.


October 11, 2004

Artek Offers Monteverdi, With Madrigals and More


Monteverdi has been the principal repertory concern of Artek in recent years, so it was not surprising that this ensemble of voices and period instruments offered what it called a "Monteverdi Extravaganza" as its contribution to the New York Early Music Celebration. Actually, the concert on Saturday evening at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, was less of an extravaganza than other recent Artek productions, not least the theatrical stagings of Monteverdi madrigals it has undertaken with the Mark Morris Dance Company and on its own.

The concert was also not devoted entirely to Monteverdi; indeed the part of the program that most fully kept the title's promise was a performance of Carlo Farina's "Capriccio Stravagante." With the ensemble moving robustly through the score's short, pictorial episodes, Dorothy Olsson and Mark Mindek of the New York Historical Dance Company danced comic episodes as the commedia dell'arte characters, Harlequino and Columbina. Madrigals by Tarquinio Merula ("Lidia") and Giovanni Felice Sances ("Tirsi morir volea") were among the liveliest.

Still, Monteverdi was amply represented, mostly by madrigals, but also with a rich-hued account of the Beatus Vir, from "Selva Morale e Spirituale." The group's vocal sextet produced a sound that was beautifully blended and rich in character, particularly in the more plaintive and lovelorn madrigals. Gwendolyn Toth conducted from the harpsichord, and there was much to admire in the astringent string sound and in the variegated texture afforded by the unusually large continuo group, which included lute, theorbo, Baroque guitar, harp and two gambas.


Published: October 7, 2004

New York Continuo Collective - Christ and St. Stephen's Church

Out of Baroque Gestures Come Vivid, Expressive Songs

"Baroque gesture" might sound like a musicologist's definition of 17th-century phrasing. But as offered by the New York Continuo Collective at Christ and St. Stephen's Church on Tuesday night, it meant that singers accompanied their texts with definite, stylized hand motions, sometimes deliberately overdone to the point of comic effect.

In the concert, part of the New York Early Music Celebration, the collective offered a mixed bag, in the best sense. First, the group: a combination of crack professionals and serious amateurs that began and still mainly exists as a workshop to explore the nuances of improvised bass lines in 17th-century music. You could say the point is style more than substance. The emphasis is on recreating the quality of Baroque performance rather than achieving musical perfection at every moment.

The other mixed-bag aspect was the program, a collage of 17th-century songs by Monteverdi, Lassus, Rossi and other contemporaries, grouped by the themes of Petrarch's Triumphs, with sets devoted to Love, Chastity, Death and so on. Only two of the texts were actually by Petrarch; in compensation, the program was interspersed with readings from his poetry.

Singing in an early-music style, without vibrato, is a challenge, and can yield a rather uneven, bumpy vocal line, an exception being Elizabeth Baber, who sang Caccini's "Filli, mirando il cielo" with a simple sound that was truly lovely. But ultimately it was gesture that carried the evening: the gestures of the ensemble of lutes and their cousins, the theorbos, triple harps and Baroque guitars, responding to the singers; the gestures of the chorus members, coming forward and leaving the stage two by two after each verse of "Passacalli della Vita" that drummed into its listeners, "You must die"; and the gestures of Amy Bartram in Ferrari's "Amanti io vi so dire," turning the piece into vivid, and irresistible, expression.


Mannes Baroque Artists - Mannes College

Good Cheer From Germany and Wild Moods From France

French clarity and precision against German depth of soul? According to four musicians at the Mannes College of Music on Monday night, the Baroque age reversed those roles. This was a stop in the New York Early Music Celebration.

With Arthur Haas playing the harpsichord, Martha McGaughey the viola da gamba and Nina Stern and Sandra Miller a collection of flutes and recorders, one heard music by Marais and Couperin in one camp, and Telemann and Quantz from another, with Rameau at the end of the evening mediating between two styles.

Marais's "Pihces en Trio" for the whole ensemble and six items from Couperin's "Pihces de Clavecin" swam furiously in their private passions, luxuriating in overgrowths of ornamentation and surging and receding in moods very close to wildness. Mr. Haas's freewheeling style in the Couperin served as underlining.

Trio sonatas by Telemann and Quantz, on the other hand, offered law and order: neatly cropped sequences, orderly harmonies and frank, unneurotic good cheer. Telemann's gargantuan productivity and consistent competence made him one of Bach's more successful rivals in the search for good jobs in the German music establishment. And Quantz's how-to book on flute playing is an important source for early music's investigations into 18th-century performing practices.

The four pieces by Rameau, with three of the four musicians playing, restored French music to a public art: brilliant, dramatic with even a touch of glitz.

If the Mannes musicians are each good and carefully rehearsed, they do not exude the razor-sharp ensemble present in teams that play together for a living. One had the sense of individuals gathered together and sharing sympathies. All four are members of the Mannes faculty.


Repast - Baruch Performing Arts Center

Newcomers Turn to a Bach Showpiece

While spotlighting the city's established period ensembles, the New York Early Music Celebration is sweeping in some newcomers as well. One group with a young career, Repast, presented Bach's "Musical Offering" as its calling card on Monday evening.

As showpieces go, you can't do better than that: a wide-ranging contrapuntal exploration of a theme provided by King Frederick II of Prussia when Bach visited Potsdam in 1747. The work's canons allow for various combinations of players, and its richly chromatic Trio Sonata demands both energy and clarity.

Repast, a quintet of flute, two violins, cello and harpsichord, has those qualities, although it took the players time to get up to speed. In the three-part ricercar, the written version of Bach's harpsichord improvisation for Frederick, Keri Mikkelson played with a tentativeness that made the work sound less daring than it is - not really the order of the day for a royal command performance. Still, Ms. Mikkelson played solidly in the ensemble pieces, particularly the Trio Sonata, which received a suitably robust reading.

Amelia Roosevelt and Claire Jolivet, the violinists, were in consistently fine form, and Charles Brink gave a good account of the wooden flute's expressive range, performing with surprising delicacy at times, but also with vigor when needed. Mr. Brink is less polished as a speaker. His lengthy discussion of the work's structure, repetitive and strewn with verbal footnotes, served only to delay the start of the work by 20 minutes.



Published: October 5, 2004

Mozartean Players - Frick Collection

Trios Anchored By the Fortepiano

The pianist Steven Lubin once gambled correctly that if he built one, they would come. The object in question was a fortepiano, modeled after those used in Mozart's day. Mr. Lubin was one of the first New Yorkers to perform widely on the fortepiano. In 1979, he founded the Mozartean Players, a period-instrument ensemble that performed on Sunday evening as part of the New York Early Music Celebration.

The group expands and contracts as the occasion demands, but at its core is a trio formed by Mr. Lubin, the violinist Stanley Ritchie and the cellist Myron Lutzke. On Sunday, these players offered a program of four works written within roughly a decade of each other, including a late Mozart trio and an early Beethoven trio. A Haydn trio opened the concert, and Haydn's remarkable F-minor Piano Variations, played by Mr. Lubin with equal portions of vigor and grace, was the highlight.

The piano part dominates the trios, but Mr. Lubin's fortepiano never overpowered. Its sound is soft yet not hazy, and he maintained a well-defined rhythmic profile and sparkling clarity, especially in the bass.

Contributions from the string players were more uneven: Mr. Lutzke rendered expressive passages with a rich and creamy tone, but Mr. Ritchie struggled periodically with pitch and fluidity of phrasing. Still, one appreciated the lively approach the group brought to this repertory.


Pomerium - Corpus Christi Church

From Spain and Burgundy, Voices of History

To open the Music Before 1800 series at Corpus Christi on Sunday, and as its contribution to the New York Early Music Celebration, the superb vocal ensemble Pomerium offered a program based on the musical ties between Spain and Burgundy during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Musical ties then were to some extent the product of political alliances, and those were often sealed in marriage. The political and marital focal point of Pomerium's program was the marriage of Philip the Fair, the Duke of Burgundy, and Princess Juana of Castile in 1496. Musically, this created a pipeline through which, over several generations, the music of the Flemish composers who were favored at the French court flowed into Spain and the works of Spanish composers made their way to Northern Europe.

Alexander Blachly, who founded Pomerium in 1972 and still directs it, opened the program with Ockeghem's Missa au Travail Suis, a work that apparently made its way to Spain during the reign of Philip's son, Charles V, who became king in 1516. Ockeghem had been dead for nearly 20 years by then, but the work survived in a cathedral manuscript in Barcelona. Slow-moving and spare in texture, this Mass nevertheless thrives on its deeply emotional text setting, and it showed the 13-voice Pomerium at its polished and beautifully blended best.

A second Flemish composer, Gombert, was represented by the Kyrie and Gloria from his Missa Sur Tous Regretz, a work composed around 1530 in what was already an immensely more sumptuous language than Ockeghem's.

Still, the real treats here were the Spanish works. A group of colorful villancicos on Nativity texts by Francisco Guerrero had the strongest Iberian melodic accent. But there were ample charms in the magnificently seamless sacred works of Andreas de Silva and Cristsbal de Morales, and a group of works by Tomas Luis de Victoria included a sweetly harmonized setting of verses from "Song of Songs."



Published: October 4, 2004

Lionheart - St. Ignatius of Antioch Church

The Calm Mysteries of Another World

Those who assume that you cannot appreciate music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance without some background knowledge of its history should have been at the concert by Lionheart at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church on Friday evening. Lionheart, an acclaimed a cappella ensemble of just six men, presented a 60-minute program called "My Fayre Ladye: Images of Women in Medieval England." If you knew nothing about the repertory of the period, it was still possible just to immerse yourself in the calming, mystical, musical pleasure of the voices as they echoed throughout the lovely, inviting and reverberant church, at West End Avenue and 87th Street. It was certainly a restorative way to end a work week.

Not that the well-conceived program, part of the New York Early Music Celebration, didn't also offer intellectual stimulation. The works were mostly drawn from Eton Choirbook, a collection of polyphonic sacred music, and Henry VIII's Book, containing popular songs and songs of courtly love from the era. The selections explored various images women: the regal, the maternal, the beloved, the unfathomable, the hunted, the sorrowful and the triumphant. The sensually charged sacred works, like John Dunstable's "Quam Pulcra Es," are meant, as Richard Porterfield wrote in an insightful program note, to provide a "common ground for divine love and carnal desire."

In a way, it did not require much adjustment when Lionheart switched to shamelessly bawdy songs like "Blow Thy Horne, Hunter," filled with sexual double-entendres. As always the singing of Lionheart was beautifully blended and focused, full but never forced, and supply phrased.


Spiritus Collective - St. Michael's Church

Horn and Voice in Proportion

In an age of McMansions, blockbuster movies and long, long books, one of the most striking things about art of the past is its sense of proportion and balance. Today, the word "trombone" conjures up images of 76 blaring instruments, but on Friday night, under the Tiffany windows of St. Michael's Church, the Spiritus Collective balanced three trombones against four human voices on the fulcrum of a continuo for theorbo and keyboard, and achieved harmonious, delightful equilibrium.

The piece was "Verleih uns Friede," a vocal cantata by Andreas Hammerschmidt, a 17th-century follower of Heinrich Sch|tz and the main focus of a program that offered a perfect blend of brass, strings and voices. A trombone by any other name is a sackbut, a smaller and lighter ancestor of the modern instrument, and Spiritus had four of them, along with two Baroque trumpets, long and slender as the instruments of angels. Against these - sometimes antiphonally, as in an instrumental sonata by another 17th-century composer, Romanus Weichlein - were five strings (violins, violas and a viola da gamba), as well as five voices, sometimes raised in solo, sometimes in compelling combination.

The singers were all quite good - Philip Anderson with a pleasant tenor, Jolle Greenleaf with a golden soprano (although she did strain in "Nun lob mein Seel den Herren," singing against all six of the brass). And the strings had a fantastic spotlight in the second, Biber-influenced Weichlein sonata, which ended with the two violins tangling in an intricate melancholy duet. But it's the brass instruments that give Spiritus - led by two brass players, Greg and Kris Ingles - its distinctive shine.


Early Music New York- Church of St. Ignatius Loyola

A Large Helping of Handel for a Big Anniversary

Early Music New York, one of the city's most durable period-instrument bands, celebrated its 30th anniversary on Saturday evening with robust performances of Handel's "Water Music" and "Music for the Royal Fireworks" at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola.

Frederick Renz, the ensemble's founder and still its director, is the force behind the New York Early Music Celebration, of which this concert was an installment. Handel is near the forward end of Mr. Renz's repertory, which in recent years has been centered mostly in medieval and Renaissance music, played by small ensembles of instrumentalists who double as singers. The ensemble (at one time called the New York Ensemble for Early Music, and the Grande Bande) has also gone as far as late Mozart, so this Handel concert was a full-fledged return to a more eclectic approach.

Mr. Renz conducted some 60 musicians - fewer than Handel may have had for these royal entertainments, but more than an early-music fan in New York typically hears at once. Assembling nine horn players, nine trumpeters and a dozen oboists adept at those instruments' intractable Baroque forms must have been daunting; the prospect of hearing them was only less so.

As it happened, all those horns played with remarkable solidity, and if the trumpets and oboes had occasional pitch problems, they were fleeting, and at times contributed to the all-out celebratory spirit of Mr. Renz's brisk performances. To a great extent, the intonation flaws were also mitigated by the church's acoustics, which are perfect for choral and organ music, but which cloak big, brassy orchestral performances like this with a reverberant haze.

If accuracy and textural transparency were all that mattered, the orchestra sounded best when it was at its lightest, in the G major "Water Music" Suite, which drops the brass and includes a lovely flute line, played by Charles Brink. Still, when the brass returned for the "Fireworks Music," the purely visceral thrill of the sound was hard to resist.