Sunday, March 4, 2018

A Musical “Odyssey” Through Leonardo’s Life

Francesco Melzi’s portrait of Leonardo (c. 1510, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Voices of Music concluded its 2017–2018 concert season with a thoroughly engaging departure from its usual approach to repertoire. The title of the program was Leonardo da Vinci: A Musical Odyssey; and the musical selections served to supplement a “journey” through Leonardo’s life. The biographical account was provided by Lawrence Rosenwald, reading his own narrative account as a series of poems structured in rhymed couplets. Music was then selected to “color” the biography with performances that Leonardo might have encountered during the different stages of his life.

The concert program for the evening could thus be described as a sequence of “informed hypotheses.” However, it is important to observe that, unlike sacred music, which tended to sustain its own preservation through ritual, the secular music of Leonardo’s lifetime, basically the second half of the fifteenth century, was not as “committed” to leaving artifacts for posterity. Remember that one the first printed books of music was Ottaviano Petrucci’s collection of Mass settings by Josquin des Prez, which appeared in 1502.

In other words most of the music that was being made during Leonardo’s lifetime was not “read” through some process of interpreting marks on paper. Rather, the operative verb was “made;” and making was a process based of just the right combination of physical dexterity and auditory skills, almost always enhanced with the vigorous spice of in-the-moment spontaneity. Certainly, where singing was concerned, getting the words right was the highest priority. However, there was considerable flexibility in fitting those words to notes; and, as anyone with a strong interest and/or background in folklore will tell you, even those words could be subject to variation in order to accommodate some immediate situation. As a result, the spirit behind last night’s program had more to do with hootenanny traditions that with the usual sit-still-and-listen concert-going practices.

Voices of Music Directors David Tayler (lute) and Hanneke van Proosdij (recorders) had no trouble cultivating those traditions into full flower. This involved augmenting the usual resources with an impressive number of guests bringing diverse talents. Voice of Music regular Elisabeth Reed was there with her gamba, and she was joined by Adaiha MacAdam-Somer. However, the third gamba player was visitor Malachai Bandy, who also played a pair of fanfares on shawm, composed for the occasion by Adam Gilbert. Rotem Gilbert played the second shawm in these fanfares and also joined Proosdij on recorder. Peter Maund provided percussion, almost always with a keen sense of pitch; and Shira Kammen was there with a lira da braccio, a predecessor of the violin that Leonardo himself played (at least according to Giorgio Vasari). Finally, there was singing provided by soprano Stefanie True and mezzo Deborah Rentz-Moore.

However any of the selections on the program may have been documented, spontaneity was definitely the order of the evening. The “fixed text” was reserved primarily for Rosenwald’s rhymed-couplets “portrait” of Leonardo, usefully informative and occasionally witty. Whether or not the music actually “matched” the biographical text was less important. It set the atmosphere and allowed for a bit more of the spirit of jamming than one tends to encounter as practices of making music became more “text-bound” in the following centuries. One might almost say that last night presented a spirited account of a spontaneity that would be gradually eclipsed by the growth of printed matter, to a point where it would not flourish again with such imagination until the beginning of the Jazz Age.

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