Tuesday, August 29, 2017

“New Music” from Two Earlier Centuries at C4NM

Last night the Center for New Music (C4NM) hosted a benefit concert for Lacuna Arts, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that provides both educational and performing opportunities for choral singers. The concert was a recital by baritone Sven Edward Olbash, who runs this organization. He is also a Teaching Artist with the San Francisco Opera and, in that capacity, spent this summer in New York at the Lincoln Center Education Leadership and Advocacy Lab. One of the results of this experience is a plan for the Lacuna Arts 2017–18 season that will focus on six “interactive choral experiences” along with two more traditional concerts. Support for this plan was the “target” of last night’s benefit concert.

In recognition of where he was singing, Olbash entitled his program The New Music. That title was also the title of a collection of monodies and songs for solo voice published by Giulio Caccini in 1602. The program opened with two selections from this collection, both settings of short poems, “Non più guerra” (no more war) by Giovanni Battista Guarini and “Amarilli, mia bella” (my lovely Amaryllis), whose verses were probably also Guarini’s.

Olbash observed that what made these pieces “new” was specificity of notation. In the early days of publication, secular music tended to consist of “tunes,” which the performer could take as a point of departure for embellishment or even more elaborate invention. (Think of performance practices for folk music.) Music-making was thus a responsibility shared by the creation of a document and the interpretation of that document.

Caccini’s Le nuove musiche thus contributed to a “shift of authority” that Rob C. Wegman called “from maker to composer,” which had begun to emerge during the second half of the fifteenth century. Through his specific attention to detail in his notation, Caccini firmly established that he, the composer, was the authority behind the music. Michel Foucault wrote an essay based primarily on the linguistic observation that “author” is the root of “authority.” We may thus view Caccini as establishing himself as an author of music, rather than a collector and publisher of tunes.

Olbash did not dwell on any of these theoretical matters. His attention was more focused on the relationship between singer and audience. Guarini was a popular poet among madrigal composers, so it is possible that many of the poems that Caccini had set for solo voice had already been given polyphonic treatment by others. However, by writing with such specificity for solo voice, Caccini may have wished to create the impression that the poet was now speaking through the composer’s music, perhaps with the same rhetorical impact one would have encountered at a recitation. Olbash nicely captured that sense of social intimacy in his delivery and his engagement with the continuo provided by Kevin Korth at the piano. One came away from these two short pieces with a sense of having been entertained but through an “authority of authorship” that had more than entertainment in mind.

These two short songs were followed by a full aria from Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 opera L’Orfeo, “Possente spirito.” This aria is sung by Orfeo in the third act, when he is trying to persuade Caronte (Charon) to ferry him across the Styx, even though he has not yet died. Orfeo pleads his case passionately; but the only result is that Caronte falls asleep, leaving Orfeo free to ferry himself. If this sounds a bit frivolous for one of the major myths of tragic love, we must remember that Monteverdi wrote this opera for a court performance held during the annual Carnival at Mantua. The audience probably got some good belly-laughs out of Orfeo triumphing over Caronte through “weapons of mass boredom.”

Nevertheless, Olbash clearly took Orfeo’s side in his own delivery. In this case he observed that Monteverdi had written two vocal lines, one entirely unadorned and the other richly ornamented with embellishment. This allowed the performer to decide just how much embellishment he felt was appropriate, and last night Olbash sang all of Monteverdi’s ornaments. The result was thus not only dramatic but also an accessible demonstration of the many different dimensions of the composer’s technique.

For this performance Olbash was accompanied by Caitlin Austin playing harmonium. Her instrument required operation of the bellows with one hand and keyboard continuo work on the other. She was clearly skilled at this, and the harmonium provided just the right sort of spooky sonorities for a grim vision of the River Styx and the even grimmer character of Caronte. Olbash emphasized this setting by using Michelangelo’s depiction of Caronte as “cover art” for his program booklet:

Michaelangelo depicting Charon (left) at work in his Last Judgment fresco (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Michelangelo also served as a “bridge” to the second half of the program, which was devoted entirely to Benjamin Britten’s Opus 22 settings of seven of the sonnets the artist had written. This is intensely personal music, which Britten wrote for himself and his life-partner, the tenor Peter Pears in 1940. The translations provided in the program booklet did not mince words when it came to homoerotic connotations (if not denotations). On the musical side what may be most interesting is the extent to which Britten establishes a unique genre to set the context of each of the sonnets. Not all of the genres are explicitly Italianate; but there is one (the second in the set) that suggests that the composer may have been studying the score of Giacomo Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” (with its cast of “vile Florentines”) while working on his own settings.

Taken as a whole, Olbash’s program was relatively short. However, the extensive breadth of his “subject matter” was more than sufficient compensation. Most important was his capacity to identify the compelling elements of each of his selections, thus providing the attentive listener with a thoroughly engaging evening.

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