A little over five years ago, Voices of Music gave one of the most memorable concerts I had encountered since I began following them as part of my writing for Examiner.com. The principal work on the program was Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s setting of the “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” hymn, commissioned in Naples for a Good Friday meditation in honor of the Virgin Mary in 1736. Last night at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, in this year marking Voices of Music’s tenth anniversary, the group revisited this Pergolesi composition, demonstrating that lightning can strike twice in the same place.
Mezzo Meg Bragle returned for the occasion, joined this time by soprano Stefanie True. The string section was only slightly larger. In the cello “section” William Skeen returned, this time playing alongside Elisabeth Reed, while Lisa Grodin was again the only violist. Kati Kyme and Maxine Nemerovski returned to the violin section, playing this time with Cynthia Miller Freivogel, Carla Moore, and Gabrielle Wunsch. Continuo was again provided by Farley Pearce on violone and David Tayler on archlute with Hanneke van Proosdij on organ; however Katherine Heater was also on hand to add harpsichord to the continuo section.
Setting this hymn text is no mean feat. Five years ago I described the words as “a monument to pietistic tedium.” Much of that impression comes from the trochaic tetrameter rhythm, which may have been intentionally unrelenting to remind the listener of the nails being driven into the Cross. (Trochaic tetrameter seems to have a special place in Roman Catholic ritual, since it is also the rhythm of the “Dies Irae” hymn included in the Requiem celebration. Here in the United States it is the rhythmic pattern for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, whose steady Ojibwe drum beats are a far cry from the nails of the Cross!) The AABCCB rhyme scheme is similarly persistent unto an extreme.
Fortunately, Pergolesi was probably selected for the task due to his popularity as an opera composer, and those talents prevailed in the music he composed for the clerical authorities. Where the text pounds away so oppressively, Pergolesi’s music soars on wings held aloft by an almost steady breeze of suspensions. The resulting overlaps of both voices and instruments are stunningly transcendent, suggesting that Pergolesi may have wanted the congregation to dwell less on the agonies on Earth in favor of the blissful rewards in Heaven. There are even sections in which he pretty much disregards what the words are actually saying in favor of some downright cheerful solo and duo work. This is not to suggest that Pergolesi was intentionally defying the solemnity of the occasion, but he seemed to believe that a hopeful congregation could be more faithful than a grieving one.
Voices of Music had no trouble conveying Pergolesi’s rhetorical stance. Indeed, both the vocal and the instrumental work frequently recalled the sorts of tropes that Pergolesi had favored in his opera composition work. Several of those tropes would show up again in the twentieth century when Igor Stravinsky’s appropriated Pergolesi sources (or at least what he thought were Pergolesi sources) when preparing a score for Léonide Massine’s “Pulcinella” ballet. There was also an almost sparkling quality to the vocal execution of both True and Bragle, not only in their solo work but also in the intimate overlapping passages of many of the duo selections. In 2012 Voices of Music’s account of Pergolesi was recognized in December as the most memorable concert of March; and this month’s “return visit” is likely to be in the running during this year’s December review.
The first half of the program was devoted to the “usual suspects” of the Baroque repertoire. True and Bragle gave an “overture” duo performance with the aria “Notte Cara” (dear night), from George Frideric Handel’s HWV 15 opera Ottone. This was preceded by True singing “Angels ever bright and fair” from Handel’s HWV 68 oratorio Theodora.
Bragle’s solo followed “Notte Cara” with one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most memorable compositions for mezzo, the “Agnus Dei” section from the BWV 232 B minor Mass setting. This was a delightful reminder of how much of BWV 232 is based in chamber music. There are only three voices in the score, the vocal line, violins in unison, and the bass line. Presented in last night’s intimate setting, one could appreciate the intensely personal side of Bach’s approach to faith, an absorbing rhetorical stance to consider before turning to Pergolesi’s approach.
The instrumental “overture” for last night’s program fell to Antonio Vivaldi. This was the “Summer” concerto from The Four Seasons, the first four concertos published in Vivaldi’s Opus 8 collection of twelve, Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (the contest between harmony and invention). Freivogel was the soloist, performing with stunning virtuosic intensity.
However, I took the trouble to give the overall collection title because the attentive listener could appreciate just how much inventiveness in both thematic and rhetorical content Vivaldi could evoke as a musical interpretation of the descriptive text of the concerto’s accompanying sonnet. Nevertheless, all of that inventiveness could be expressed within the grammatical constraints of familiar harmonic progressions. This was a performance of familiar music that reminded the listener of why Vivaldi chose to write that music in the first place.