Last night the Community Music Center (CMC) hosted the final program in the current season of the Lacuna Arts Ensemble, a performance by the Lacuna Arts Chorale of madrigals of passion and despair. The Chorale is a reduced ensemble consisting only of five sopranos, seven altos, four tenors (one of whom could not perform due to illness), and four basses. The historical scope reached back to Orlande de Lassus’ “Standomi un giorno solo a la fenestra” (one day, standing alone at my window), setting six poems by Petrarch on the common theme of delight turned to despair. The Baroque period was represented by Alessandro Scarlatti’s “Sdegno la fiamma estinse” (the flame was extinguished), a five-voice madrigal sung one-to-a-part with an additional bass. On the contemporary side five of the six “fire songs” in Morten Lauridsen’s Madrigali were performed, all based on early Italian poetry. Finally, there was a one-to-a-part (again with an extra bass) performance of the four-section Lamento d’Arianna (lament of Ariadne) from Claudio Monteverdi’s sixth book of madrigals.
To say that this was not the most cheerful of evenings would be the height of understatement. Nevertheless, even in the Renaissance it was recognized that the darker emotional shades tended to provide opportunities for more adventurous harmonic progressions. Uncertainty in the soul lends itself to the ambiguities of dissonant sonorities, all the more potent when the resolution of those dissonances is often itself uncertain or unconventional. The result last night was a program derived from compositional practices at their most adventurous, revealing that being adventurous during both Renaissance and Baroque periods could be just as provocative to the contemporary ear as the “emancipated” dissonances of Arnold Schoenberg.
However, if the concept behind this program was an admirable one, execution was not always of the highest caliber. Both intonation and balance were not up to the standards present in previous Lacuna Arts performances. To be fair, this problem may have had more to do with the acoustics in the stage area of the CMC Concert Hall, which lacked any form of shell to facilitate each vocalist hearing all of the others. Since Artistic Director Sven Edward Olbash interspersed his vocal ranges, rather than collecting each in a single group, every vocalist depends on the ability to hear clearly all of the others; and that ability could easily have been thwarted by conditions on the stage.
Things did not fare much better on audience side. The madrigal repertoire reflects a long-standing tradition of composers drawn to texts for their literary value; and many (most?) of us are far more familiar with Petrarch through poems that have been set to music than from those read in anthologies. Due to limitations of space, the program book provided only the English prose translations of all of the Italian texts that were sung. However, one could still appreciate at least some of the structural elements of those texts; and there was no faulting the semantic insights provided by those translations.
The problem was that the audience was kept in total darkness, making it virtually impossible to follow these English texts while listening to the Italian singing. There was, of course, adequate time to read the texts before the performance began. Nevertheless, the impact of these madrigals had much to do with the immediacy of their confrontations with language. By depriving the listener of following even an English translation, many of the key virtues of each of the composers being presented was seriously undermined.
This meant that the music had to deliver strictly on its own terms; and there certainly was no doubt that Lassus, Monteverdi, Scarlatti, and Lauridsen all displayed a solid command of the necessary craft.