Monday, February 20, 2017

ARTEK Mines a Melancholy Take on Love from Monteverdi’s Madrigals

Yesterday afternoon the San Francisco Early Music Society continued its 40th season in San Francisco with a visit from the ARTEK ensemble based in New York City. The full title of the program was Bridge of Sighs: Selections from the Madrigals, Book 7 (1619), by Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643). The bridge, which crosses the Rio de Palazzo canal in Venice connects, the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace to the so-called New Prison (Prigioni Nuove), providing those about to be imprisoned with their last view of Venice. However, as ARTEK Director Gwendolyn Toth explained, the program had nothing to do with this dark reputation but, instead, addressed the legend that a couple kissing under the bridge in a gondola at sunset will be granted eternal love. (This was the basis for the plot of the movie A Little Romance.)

The program was presented in two parts separated by an intermission, ten madrigals in the first part and eight in the second. (The total number of madrigals in the seventh book is 29.) All of the texts addressed the theme of love. However, the prevailing mood had more to do with sighs of frustration than with the promise of eternal love. Nevertheless, by providing improvised connecting material for the instrumental accompaniment between the madrigals, each half of the program had its own integrated continuity. This allowed the program to proceed at a rather efficient clip, rather than dragging on through polite applause after each madrigal.

Note that reference to the instruments. The seventh book was the first of the nine that Monteverdi published in which all of the selections had a “concerted” accompaniment. Indeed, the full title of the publication was Concerto. Settimo libro di madrigali. Yesterday that accompaniment was provided by Toth at the harpsichord joined by Daniel Swenberg on theorbo. The rest of the ensemble consisted of seven vocalists, sopranos Laura Heimes and Clara Rottsolk, mezzo Barbara Hollinshead, Ryland Angel alternating between countertenor and tenor (sometimes in the same madrigal), tenors Andrew Fuchs and Philip Anderson, and bass-baritone Peter Becker.

By my count only three of the madrigals in the seventh book are solos. Most of the program consisted of ten duets performed in seven different combinations of vocal ranges. There were also  three different combinations of trios and two quartets. The entire ensemble performed the opening selection “A quest’olmo, a quest’ombre” (to this elm, to this shade), which is the only six-part piece in the collection. The only work written as a solo was presented as the conclusion. “Se pur destino e vole” (if heaven wishes and ordains). This had the longest text of the program, and that text was divided across all seven of the vocalists.

It is unclear whether Monteverdi intended this music for an audience of listeners. He could just as easily had only the performers in mind gathering in a private setting. Nevertheless, his approach to composition tends to involve a balance between elaborate counterpoint and either solo or homophonic writing. This means that a listener (at least one knowledgeable in Italian) has little trouble following clear statements of the words which then are subjected to elegantly conceived elaborations.

In a concert setting those of us with little (if any) understanding in Italian can only manage with a bilingual text sheet. Following a printed text, one comes to appreciate how Monteverdi knew how to prioritize the semantics of a poem over its underlying (and often highly elegant) structure. As a result, those who followed these texts quickly appreciated just how many sighs were expressed over the course of the eighteen madrigals in the program.

Nevertheless, this was far from a one-thing-after-the-other experience. Each madrigal had is own characteristic approach of sighing, to do speak. Toth had clearly designed the program to focus on diversity of the individuals within the unity of the theme. The result was that the overall sense of entertainment through diversion prevailed in parallel with the intricate elegance of Monteverdi’s approaches to setting Italian verse.

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