St Bartholomew's Church is a jewel of midtown-Manhattan architecture, providing a vibrant counterpoint to a neighborhood of modern towers. It makes no assault on height, but rather sits in the squat manner of the Byzantine churches upon which it is modeled. Because San Marco in Venice is also a Byzantine church, I thought that St Bart's would make a perfect venue for the music of Giovanni Gabrieli (1554-1612), even more than Vivaldi the composer of Venetian music.
Well, I thought wrong. Or maybe it was the vulgarity of my ideas about Gabrieli that needed adjustment. Reading the notes confirms that the concert was designed to counter received unwisdom, which, come to think of it, is what Andrew Parrott is famous for doing. Jeffrey Nussbaum writes in the program,
However, Giovanni Gabrieli did not write his music for trumpets, horns and tuba, and the modern sensibilities of many brass ensembles can leave the listener with an inaccurate idea of his music.
That's what must have happened to me. When I was in college, Gabrieli was the composer par excellence of densely majestic fanfares that showed off stereo systems to great effect. Each of his canzoni appeared to be written for two mighty brass choirs, to be performed from opposite balconies high above the ground floor, and to be played with a highly competitive swagger. No, WE can play this louder than YOU can! It was rousing stuff, and we were having none of that last Friday at the opening concert of the New York Collegium season.
The building itself worked against the music's power, literally. Played in the chancel, in a sort of rainbow arc, the music blew up into the dome and, for the most part, stayed there, producing an underwhelming tone and giving the tricky trombone parts - er, sackbuts - a sound that one neighbor called "tentative." (My hunch is that the right church for this kind of music is probably in Harlem.) Thanks to baritone Thomas Meglioranza, one of the performers, I had two tickets to the event. I availed myself of the one in Row AA for the first half of the concert, and then moved up to Row O for the second. The difference was striking. (Tom has written up the evening from his perspective with characteristically instructive insight.)
Most of the pieces performed were vocal settings of devotional texts. A few pieces, among them a Magnificat, featured male soloists with mixed chorus (or schola), but most were written for a handful of male soloists alone. Among the soloists, countertenor Matthew White stood out the most, with a warm, secure voice that sounded very much at home in the church's difficult acoustic. But I also had the pleasant surprise of really liking tenor Marc Molomot way with this material, after rather disliking his Evangelist in the St Matthew Passion last spring. It was a matter of timbre simply. Tenors Rodrigo del Pozo and Gareth Morrell were also noteworthy. (Unprofessionally - whatever that means - I will note my disappointment that Tom didn't get to sing more. But in plain truth there wasn't much music of ower-register interest on offer. Gabrieli played up the call and response of tenor and countertenor.)
I shall have to hunt down recordings and get to know the music better. But I still think it ought to have been a little more - Italian. More garlic. There were times when the music sounded so sophisticated that I was put in mind of that most transcendental of Renaissance composers, Thomas Tallis. Another cup of tea entirely.
The instruments were beautiful and somewhat fantastic. The two theorbos looked longer (taller) than I am - quite magnificently exaggerated lutes. The valveless sackbuts were more delicate than trombones, but they seemed a little longer, too. Most interesting were the cornets. These looked like basset horns, the oboe variant of which Mozart was so fond, with diminutive bells at their tips. It was obviously challenging music to play, and I wish that a little more of the excitement had broken through.
Erich Milnes played two brief pieces, one of them by Claudio Merulo, on the portatif organ. The effect was that of a religious service of great pomp, with all the ecclesiastical parts taken out. (September 2005)
The Church of St Vincent Ferrer is a beautiful venue for evening concerts. Shadows cast by stone tracery draw the imagination into an idle play that doesn't distract from the music. But it is important to remember to bring some sort of cushion to sit on. The pews are excessively Dominican.
Last Friday night, the Collegium presented some very familiar music in relatively unfamiliar terms. Four of Bach's six Brandenburg Concerti were played, along with a sonata each for flute and violin (BWV 1034 and 1021). The sonatas, played by clavecinist Eric Milnes and cellis Emily Walhout with NYC flautist Sandra Miller and guest director Ingrid Matthews, respectively, were given stylish, silken performances that might have benefited, slightly, from closer acoustics; even in Row H, right off the center aisle, I wasn't as sure of Ms Miller's sound as I'd have like to be. But the ensemble was always dynamic and wide-awake; no age-old dust was allowed to settle on these masterly chamber pieces.
Given the extraordinary currency of at least two of the Brandenburgs on the program - Nos 3 and 5 - I assumed that the works would be played in some unusual way, and I was right to do so, even if I was a dolt not to foresee exactly how the group would defy expectations. Following Music Director Andrew Parrott's passion for lean forces, the concertos were played by one instrument per part. This meant that the big Brandenburg Nº 5, a triple concerto, was performend by eight musicians altogether. In addition to the three solo instruments (played by Ms Matthews, Ms Miller, and Mr Milnes), there were the violins* (Cynthia Roberts and Dongmyung Ahn), the viola (Dana Maiben), the cello (Ms Walhout), and the violone (Jay Elfenbein). You'd be right to suspect the the sound produced by such forces might be underpowered, but you'd be wrong to conclude that, in the event, it was. It wasn't.
One of the treasures of my recording collection is an early-Sixties LP of the Brandenburg Fifth, played by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the man who made it great but did not hang around to reap his reward, Leopold Stokowski. The bottom was just about to give way beneath the idea that the work ought to be presented more or less like Beethoven's Triple Concerto, only without orchestral winds, but you'd never have guessed that from Stokie's rendition, the motto of which is, Think Big. There is nothing wrong with playing the Fifth this way, but there's nothing necessary about it, either. At Friday's concert, the ritornello of five stringed instruments had sufficient heft to carry the outgoing outer movements. (They were not called upon to join in the central Affetuoso.) I was delighted and surprised at once.
It is far more common to treat the Third and Sixth Brandenburgs as chamber works, so the surprise was correspondingly less when the first was played, particularly as the Third requires eleven players: three each of violins, violas, and cellos, with two musicians playing the continuo. The Sixth sounded fine with seven musicians; violists Heidi Powell and Ms Maiben produced very different sounds, thus highlighting the weave of canonic play. With its two recorder parts (and two specified parts for violini di ripieno), the Fourth could be played by nine, and was. Another triple concerto, the concerto pits recorders against a violin solo, and here Ms Matthews was joined by the NYC's brilliant Nina Stern and Daphne Mor. (This time, Ms Powell took the viola part.)
I don't mean to make a mountain out of a molehill. What was primarily interesting about the OVPP approach was that it didn't make these familiar works sound much different at all. The only way to make chestnuts such as these sound different is to play them badly. Why, then, go out to hear them? Why commit one's musical resources to their performance? Quite aside from their popularity (which I might appear to be holding against them; I don't), there always remains the possibility, even in performances of the most familiar music, of the pulsating rapture of serious musicians joyfully producing sound. When attacked in this way - as if for the first time - everything sounds fresh. (November 2005)
* Glancing at the score, I conclude that the Collegium could have got away with just one violino di ripieno, so, strictly speaking, the OVPP principle was not imposed here.
For its fourth concert of the season (I missed the third, devoted to Clérambault), the Collegium offered a very interesting contrast between Handel and Telemann. I myself am crazy about Telemann, because he carries on the élan of Vivaldi. Vivaldi's effect upon Bach was momentous, but Bach completely transmuted Vivaldi's style into something serious and Saxon. Telemann, although his music never demonstrates the primacy of The Tune that Bach learned from Vivaldi, is the only one of the trio to display Vivaldi's exuberance.
Handel doesn't come into this discussion, because he learned about tunes, I suspect, later on in life, and from the English - certainly not from the composer he idolized as a young man, Arcangelo Corelli. That may be why I found the portion of Alexander's Feast (1736) that closed the concert rather dull and fustian. "Alexander's Feast" is one of Dryden's St Cecilia's Day poems, and it is as ridiculous as the one that Handel used for his St Cecilia's Day Ode is sublime. An allegory that mixes Greeks, Greek gods, and (Roman) Cecilia, the work is studded with nomenclature. I got quite tired of hearing about the problems of Timotheus, and, not having looked ahead at the text, I thought I heard "And like a mother hen," during the soprano air, instead of "And like another Helen." Alexander's Feast couldn't have held my attention under the best of circumstances. These were the best of circumstances.
I did very much like hearing Handel's Organ Concerto in in d, Op 7 No 4. The opening adagio is the gloomiest thing that I know of Handel, a sort of sunken solemnity that does not wear out its welcome before leading to a very peppy Allegro. Organist Eric Milnes played not the church's organ but the boxy portatif that it always gives me a headache to think of moving onto and off the altar.
(The concert was again at St Vincent Ferrer, and once again I brought a pillow to sit on. Those pews are literally mortifying! And, as long as I'm chatting, I'll tell you that for the first time in my life I was counting on the "8:10 is the new 8:00." It's good that I wasn't counting very heavily upon it; arriving exactly at eight, I found the orchestra ready to begin. I was seated in the fourth pew back from the front, and exactly in the middle. If I were twice my size, I couldn't have felt more painfully conspicuous.)
In 1756, Telemann composed what would become the first part of his Donner Ode. (Donner is the German for "thunder.") It is a memorial to the victims of the great earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in the year before. The textual response to disaster is very unlike any that would be made today. The text is taken entirely from paraphrases of the Psalms, specifically the psalms in which the awful mountain-breaking power of the Lord is praised. (Lisbon goes unmentioned, as does sympathy for the homeless and shipwrecked.) It's rather primitive and amulet-like in its way, saying "Hey, God, there's nobody like you when it comes to scaring our pants off. Great stuff! (Just don't do it again soon.)" The work was so popular that in 1762 Telemann doubled its length with a second part. The opening chorus, which is repeated at the end of the first part, reappears at the end of the second part as well, but it doesn't wear out its welcome, either. The chorus is baroque music at its most joyous.
In between the two parts of the Donner Ode, we had four movements from Hamburger Ebb und Flut, Telemann's Water Music. Handel's more famous suites may have provided the inspiration; the composers maintained a lively correspondence. To my ears they sound nothing alike, however. Listening to the selections, I mused yet again on the fact that recordings have made me much, much more familiar with the great composers' tics, tricks, and characteristics than any contemporary non-musicologist could have been. According to the notes, Handel borrowed the tune of Op 7 No 4's Allegro from Telemann's Tafelmusik, but even if he did, the result sounds like Handel and nobody else.
Mr Parrott makes his vocal soloists join in the choruses, and, at least in the fourth pew back, the conjunction of five singers up front and nine in the back was pleasantly antiphonal. The singers, all of them fine, were soprano Tamara Matthews, alto Hai-Ting Chinn, tenor Mark Bleeke, and basses Thomas Meglioranza and Curtis Streetman. Anything that I said about the particular excellences of any and all of the performers and soloists would be surperfluous, because I've already said it twice in earlier entries. At a New York Collegium concert, the only analogy that I ever reach is extraordinarily complex port - or perhaps a butterscotch that isn't too sweet. (March 2006)
Friday night saw the last of this season's New York Collegium Concerts, at the Church of St Vincent Ferrer. We had the first two Brandenburg Concertos and two of Bach's "Lutheran" Masses. In other words, music familiar and obscure. The prevailing note all evening long was good humor, or perhaps jollity. There were moments of keening poignance throughout - the Adagio of the first Brandenburg, the "Qui tollis" movements of the masses - but they were overshadowed by neighboring high spirits. Watching the band tussle with the difficulties of playing the concertos on original instruments was great fun, and, as usual, it restored freshness to works than which it is impossible to be more widely-known without straying from the canon. The Collegium's sound reminds me of the "oak" flavor imparted by many California vintners to their white wines. Some people don't like it. I find it both tart and sumptuous.
The masses were sung by wonderfully well-blended singers, most of them Collegium regulars: Emily Van Evera, Kirsten Sollek, and Mark Bleeke were joined by Thomas Meglioranza in the Mass in A, BWV 234, and by Curtis Streetman in the Mass in F, BWV 233. Structurally identical, the masses are worlds apart in sound, although perhaps it would be more useful to think of BWV 233 as written with the outdoors in mind (thanks to hunting horns) while the finely dotted BWV 234 takes place at court. Commentator (and Collegium violinist) Robert Mealy argues persuasively that, in recasting music originally written for cantata cycles, Bach, far from doing anything "derivative," was recasting music that he thought well of in a format for which there would be more occasion for performance. The Masses are delightful, and ought to be better known.
Seated, I know not why, in the second pew, I could see and hear everything very well; at ten pews further back, the church's mysteries begin to cloud the senses. The sense of bodily discomfort, alas, is kept busy no matter where you sit. St Vincent's shallow, low-set, and absolutely perpendicular pews ought to be replaced. I was very wretched during the first of the Masses (the second item on the program), even though I had brought my pillow. Everything from the hips down ached mightily, and I thought how silly it was to put audiences in a state of dying for well-played music to end. For some reason, I got through the second half without feeling tortured. The man sitting next to me said, as we were all leaving, that the next time he attends a performance at St Vincent's he's going to do "exactly as you did, sir." (May 2006)
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