Saturday, October 13, 2018

An Evening with Monteverdi and Contemporaries

Bernardo Strozzi’s circa 1630 portrait of Claudio Monteverdi (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, San Francisco Performances (SFP) began this season’s Hear Now and Then Series with a “then” program of vocal and instrumental Italian music from the seventeenth century. The focus was primarily on the vocal side with particular attention to Claudio Monteverdi, represented by selections from his seventh and eighth books of madrigals, both of which were written during the period when he served as maestro di capella at the St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The program also included several of the more “entertainment-based” compositions collected under the title Scherzi musicali, written earlier in Monteverdi’s career during his service to Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. In addition there were a few vocal selections by Monteverdi’s contemporaries, Luigi Rossi and Martino Pesenti.

Almost all of the vocal works involved two treble voices. These were supplied by Joelle Greenleaf, Artistic Director of TENET Vocal Artists, and her TENET colleague Molly Quinn. They were accompanied by the Quicksilver ensemble led by Robert Mealy, whose other members were violinist Julie Andrijeski, cellist David Morris (occasionally shifting to gamba), harpsichordist Avi Stein, and Charles Weaver dividing his time between theorbo and guitar. They provided instrumental “separators” between the vocal sets with chamber compositions by Giovanni Paolo Cima, Giovanni Battista Fontana, Francesco Turini, and Dario Castello. Prior to the Castello selection, Mealy explained to the audience that Quicksilver had not prepared any Monteverdi selections because his only instrumental works were to be found in his operas!

Back when I taught at the University of Pennsylvania, the Music Department had a Collegium Musicum, whose focus on early music included Monteverdi madrigals. Every performance of a madrigal was preceded by an expressive reading of the text being set, which basically “primed” the emotional disposition of the listener for what would follow in Monteverdi’s music. Last night SFP opted for the more usual practice of providing text sheets. If these did not always prepare the mood for listening quite as well, they disclosed one of the most interesting aspects of Monteverdi’s works.

Each madrigal involved setting a rigidly structured poetic text. However, Monteverdi was consistently more interested in the emotional turbulence of the semantics, rather than formal structure. As a result he is guided almost entirely by the prevailing mood; and it is through his efforts to capture that mood that he accounts for the words of the poet, often adding repetitions and frequently ignoring formal boundaries.

Greenleaf and Quinn then took Monteverdi’s departure from text structure as an opportunity for their own departure from convention. Rather than just stand there and sing, the two of them seem to have worked out choreographic moves that reinforced not only the semantics that Monteverdi highlighted but also rhetorical dispositions that made their delivery more of an intimate encounter between two different personalities. This worked particularly well in light of Monteverdi’s approach to polyphony.

Technically, Monteverdi was as prodigiously skilled in developing the interplay between two polyphonic voices as he was in blending those voices into rich homophonic textures dominated by thirds and sixths. Thus, just as a sonnet often divides into two parts, one of which poses a “problem” after which the other establishes a “solution,” so Monteverdi could begin a duo with back-and-forth exchanges of motifs (often with hints of one-upmanship). Then, as the two protagonists begin to tire each other out, they mutually agree to settle into consonant homophony. This technique was similarly evident in much of the instrumental music, in which the two violin parts were as much “protagonists” as the vocalists, again with “competitive polyphony” resolving into “agreeable homophony.”

The seventeenth century in Italy was also a time when composers began to take more adventurous approaches to dissonance. Particularly in secular settings, there was less concern about whether a composer might be flirting with “the Devil’s music.” Instead, an extremity of emotional disposition was treated as an opportunity for an auditory extremity, often drawing upon pitch classes from the chromatic scale that would provide a “shock value” through their “otherness.” Castello was particularly daring in taking this approach, making it more than a little frustrating that we know almost nothing about him except we what know from the two books of instrumental sonatas that he published.

Last night’s program thus emerged as a delightful journey through adventurous approaches to both vocal and instrumental settings. Because Monteverdi served as the bellwether for the selections and their representative composers, it was understandable that he should also account for the encore. This turned out to come from one of his operas, L’incoronazione di Poppea, providing a more specific reference point for the staging techniques that Greenleaf and Quinn had designed for their earlier performances. They sang the rapturously erotic duet “Pur ti miro, pur ti godo” (“I gaze at you, I possess you”) in which Nero and Poppea celebrate (yes, I am afraid that is the right word) Nero having exiled his wife Ottavia in order to marry Poppea and claim her as his Empress.

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