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When we hear Vivaldi's church music, we're inclined to visualize San Marco, having been directed to do so by countless record jackets and jewel box brochures. But Vivaldi was far from a fixture at the Basilica. His principal professional attachment was to the Ospedale della Pietà, one of four Venetian foundling homes. The Pietà was a home for girls, and although all four institutions raised money through concerts performed by the inmates, the Pietà was the jewel of this crown, a must-see on every grand tour. The instrumentalists, who performed behind a grille, were virtuosos, and there were many fine singers, too. But there were no men in the chorus at the Pietà, and Robert Mealy, violinist and commentator of the New York Collegium, advances the opinion of some scholars that

the women simply sang the bass and perhaps tenor parts transposed up an octave. The occasional difficulties of part-writing would be concealed by the instrumental bass-line, which plays the written pitch. If this was so, Vivaldi may have used conventional four-part notation for his choral writing in hopes that these pieces would eventually be performed outside the Pietà.

Accordingly, a concert billed as "Vivaldi at the Pietà was a concert at which the composer's celebrated Gloria, RV 589, was sung exclusively by women. It was ravishing. The Gloria was one of the first things I sang in glee club, and I found the tenor part very taxing. On recordings, it seems strangely pronounced, and not just because I know how it goes. Sung by the second sopranos, however, it melted right into the fabric.

First, however, a word about the pews at St Vincent Ferrer. St Vincent's may be a very beautiful church, one of the best Gothic revival buildings ever constructed, but its pews are designed, perhaps by the Dominicans whose church it is, for mortification of the flesh. The seats are parallel to the floor, and the backs are perpendicular to both. After the last concert at this venue, I had the forethought to bring a small pillow, but I still felt somewhat crucified by the concert's end. I mention this because the concert would have to have been very fine indeed to keep me in my seat.

I was not familiar with the two psalms, "Laetatus sum," RV 607, and "in exitu Israel," RV 604, but they're both lovely, cheerful works, and the thirteen women who sang them had wonderfully blending voices. After the interval, they served the Gloria just as well, along with soloists Elaine Lachica, Jennifer Ellis and alto Kirsten Solleck. Ms Ellis's voice is more to my taste than Ms Lachica's but that's a very minor cavil.

It frustrates me not to be able to describe the Collegium's sound. It is very distinctive, and it surprises me every time. There is, first of all, the shock of hearing a handful of players produce such a big sound - an effect to which the church doubtless contributes. There is the perfect accord between Myron Lutzke's cello and Jay Elfenbein's double bass, which makes for a redoubtable continuo. There is the passion of submitting fervent expressiveness to the strictest discipline, which give's the group's performances the urgency, at times, of an alarming boiler valve. Suffice it to say that the Collegium proved incapable of making Vivaldi sound trivial or jejune.

Three famous concertos were played, for Oboe in a, RV 461, for violin in A, RV 552 - an echo concerto that a visiting crown prince had shipped to Dresden - and for the flautino, or Piccolo, in c, RV 443. Stephen Hammer seemed to have his hands full with the Oboe Concerto, but violinist Cynthia Roberts and flautist Nina Stern were spot-on. Three church sonatas were also played, including the very sombre one in C, RV 779, which gave organist Eric Milnes occasion to produce some fine flourishes. Mr Milnes also played the harpsichord continuo, but I wondered if his instrument might just as well have been out of tune, because all I heard was a sort of dusting of quivers demonstrating that the instrument had showed up for the performance but not, exactly, what it was up to.

Long after the memory of these performances has become dim, I will remember a remarkable coincidence. Four pews ahead of me sat a petite woman with lustrous hair pulled back into a bun. I knew that it wasn’t Kathleen, but, hair color aside, I waited for the woman to turn her head so that I could enjoy the moment when she stopped resembling Kathleen. Imagine my surprise when this moment was simultaneous with the recognition that she was Jenetta Benton, the Metropolitan Museum curator to whom I’d been introduced just two days earlier, when I’d bumped into a friend who’s taking her lecture course. It's true that both events occurred at or in cultural institutions on Manhattan's Upper East Side, but I still found it very strange. Of course it's the sort of thing that happens all the time, if you keep your eyes open. (April 2005)

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Until Friday, I had not heard Bach's St Matthew Passion in a church. Nor had I heard it performed as written. The composer's 1736 revision, the standard in modern performances, calls for two "cori," meaning not choirs but corps: two distinct groups of musicians. The reason for this division may have been the composer's discovery that, for the performance of large-scaled passions, he could supplement the virtuoso ensemble that performed with him each week in one of the Leipzig churches with a capable but less expert group. This would give the better players a few breaks during a long work, and it would also make possible the call-and-response effect, antiphony, that makes for massiveness and drama.

Because I love great big choruses, I'm not best pleased by the current, allegedly authentic, performance practice of allotting each choral voice to just one singer, but if this was indeed a constraint that Bach had to work with, then the double-chorus construction makes a lot of sense. Because today's choral societies are not about to cede works like the St Matthew Passion to purists, standard performances will continue to ignore Bach's divisions. On almost any recording, you'll find that one chorus does the job (with perhaps a boy choir pitching in the soprano chorale in the two instances where that is called for), four soloists to sing the arias, a tenor to sing the part of the Evangelist, and a baritone to sing the part of Jesus. And one orchestra. As long as you've got a regular chorus, and don't need the second quartet of voices for weight, there's no reason to engage four second-string soloists.

Last night, however, the New York Collegium performed the Passion with no chorus at all, just the eight soloists -  with some help from a ninth singer, Craig Phillips, to sing Pilate, a part usually taken by a chorus member. (There was also a performance on Thursday evening.) The voices might have sounded awfully thin at Carnegie Hall, but the nave of at the Byzantine-baroque Church of St Ignatius Loyola amplified the vocal mass enormously. If the acoustics were a problem, it was for the singers, who were thrown off the beat here and there by the echoes, and who all seemed to have problems at the bottoms of their range. The two orchestras, each with its own portatif organs, sat side by side in the apse; when they both played, the sound was almost Wagnerian. I did not care enough for the timbre of Marc Molomot's voice to revel in his Evangelist; he seemed to rush, and he also anticipated. The Evangelist begins as a reverent reporter, and only by degrees does he become emotionally involved, as it were, in the narrative; by the crucifixion, he is outrage itself, and, after this, a spent husk. Mr Molomot was indignant from the start. Thomas Meglioranza was a fine Jesus, and I wondered at the marvel of Bach's setting his savior's words in a way that's exactly right. (Kathleen: "Bach was a genius." Sometimes, that's all there is to it.) The other two members of the first coro, Emily van Evera and Rosemarie van der Hooft, were fine singers, too; Ms van der Hooft, accompanied by Robert Mealy, brought tears to more than a few eyes in the "Erbarme dich." The four ripieno singers, Elaine Lachica, Kirsten Sollek, Tony Boutté, and Peter Stewart, were also very good, although we didn't get to hear very much of them individually. The player who got the biggest hand at the end was Susan Napper, whose viola da gamba solos were doughty and devotional at the same time.

My observance of Lent is pretty much a matter of listening to one or the other of Bach's passions several times, but this year I've been on jag, listening to the whole thing at least twice and often three times a week since late January. But I have only recently acquired a score, and, for me, that is where knowing music begins. I may be able to whistle along through every bar, but I can't immediately place the bits that come to mind, although I'm pretty solid on the last twenty minutes because the recitative and aria, "Ach, Golgotha, unsel'ges Golgotha!...Sehet, Jesu hat die Hand" was an early favorite, and I'd often just listen from there. Last night, with the score both in my hand and assiduously followed by the performers, I began to have a sense of the work's fabled architecture.

At the interval, I remarked that the St Matthew Passion is not as well known, in America, as Messiah. I didn't add that I attribute this to language - Messiah is already in English. To Kathleen, however, language had little to do with it; melody was the difference. "Aside from 'O Sacred Head'," she said, referring to a hymn that appears five or six times throughout the Passion, "there are no melodies to speak of." I was so surprised by this that I couldn't think what to say. But I saw that she was quite right as to singing. Bach gives all the best tunes go to the instrumentalists, and has the singers accompany them. How's that for mortification of the flesh?

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Haunted by the possibility that all the best music followed the interval, I left the Church of St Vincent Ferrer toward the end of the interval. The pews were remarkably uncomfortable; when I return for the Vivaldi concert in the spring, I'll be sure to bring a pillow. Then there was the allergy that I hadn't quite gotten over: Altace, a hypertension drug, has been known - by the allergist whom I consulted, anyway - to stimulate allergic reactions. Suffice it to say that I feared being a nuisance during the performance. Finally, though, and, to be honest, decisively, I didn't much care for the work of Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

My objection was partly musical. Although the musicians played beautifully, I couldn't see why they were lavishing such care on music that goes nowhere. The program consisted of two instrumental pieces and four sacred oratorios. The Interlude Instrumentale: Nuit, from a Christmas piece, went in one ear and out the other; rarely have I felt such a Philistine. The two oratorios that were given in the first half, Mors Saulis et Jonathae and Le Reniement de Saint Pierre, reminded me that baroque church music was of a piece with the frescoes and alterpieces that made churches into theatres of the divine. Music was not supposed to draw attention to itself, and French piety in the seventeenth century seems to have scorned Italian exuberance. I felt that I'd been locked up in a remote château by Mme de Bellegarde, the villainess in The American.

Mors Saulis is taken from the two Books of Samuel. The musical highlights are Saul's consultation with the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28) and his plea for death after losing the battle of Mount Gilboa (2 Samuel 1). The Witch of Endor's invocation of the ghost of Samuel, with its repeated (and quite unscriptural) spell, sung with dramatic and even faintly hair-raising delivery by Ryland Angel, is an aria in gestation, still rooted in, rather than distinct from, recitative. So is the hearsay account of Saul's last words. He begs an Amalekite soldier to put him out of his misery, and I will not soon forget David Vanderwal singing, "Tolle, quaeso, tolle languores vitae meae" ("Take, I beg thee, take from me the pangs of life.") But these engaging moments are adrift in a sea of recitative, and together they make me wonder what they're doing in church. Where is the edification in this grubby tale? I understand that its point is the dissonance between being the Lord's Annointed and being a sinful man, but, aside from extolling the sacredness of the French monarchy, this war story seems to have no ulterior message, no 'moral' for us to draw. Treating such material as the Word of God degrades the very idea of the Word of God,

I did not have the same problem with Le Reniement de Saint Pierre; rather the reverse. In Bach's St Matthew Passion, Peter's denial of his master, foreseen by Jesus and followed directly by the shattering beauty of "Erbarme dich," is perhaps the heart of the work. When the Evangelist sings about Peter's shame at the sound of the cock's crowing, I always think that if all other evidence of Christianity were to vanish from the face of the earth and the minds of men, it would be possible to reconstruct it from Bach's awful and magnificent masterpiece. Charpentier's handling of the story, in contrast, was very hard to attend to, and all I remember is the sudden onset of tremendous serenity that told me that the work was about to end, with Jesus looking at Peter. Here was a glimmer of Bach - the same wash of long violin notes that frames everything that Bach's Jesus says in the Passion. But, as I say, it was the end of an otherwise not very compelling work.

I'm sure that it was "authentic," but it was also terribly distracting of the singers to pronounce their Latin with a French accent. It sounded astonishingly provincial; surely the French ear is not insensible to the blunt majesty of Latin's four-square syllables, innocent of nasalization. The word "urgent" was anything but, while "cruenta" - cru - en - ta, three little French words - sounded demented. I could not get used to it.

The concert was directed by Eric Milnes. Daniel Swenberg's very long-necked theorbo (an antique lute) made a striking impression, and the string players were as incisive as I expected them to be, but the music constrained them to movements from pillar to post. Although I feel obliged to name all eight singers, and not just two, I'm not going to, because I have nothing distinctive to say about any of them, and it's not their fault. This is not music that can live apart from the very Jesuit-inflected piety by which it was inspired. (November 2004)

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How pleasant it was to have a good excuse for missing the second presidential debate. The New York Collegium's seventh subscription season opened, at the Church of St Ignatius, so I got a pleasant walk from home into the bargain. The concert's theme was "Handel in Rome," and Andrew Parrott led his compact but powerful group of singers and instrumentalists through Handel's magnificent setting of Psalm 109/110, Dixit Dominus. The first half of the concert began and ended with two less distinguished compositions dating from Handel's Roman holiday (1707-1710), the Nisi Dominus and the Salve Regina. The string band, most of which played standing, also played two of Arcangelo Corelli's masterpieces, the Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 4, and the second posthumous Trio Sonata. Between the Corellis, Kent Tritle played Handel's Largo & Fantasia on the church's main organ.

If you don't look to closely at the paintings, and, like me, haven't been to Rome, St Iggy's seems to resemble an Italian baroque church; at any rate, it sounds like my idea of one. This made the performances most exciting. They were brilliant, to be sure; principal violinists Cynthia Roberts and Robert Mealy are top-drawer virtuosi, and Mr Parrott can be expected (on the basis of his recordings) to elicit a sophisticated polish, paradoxically both edgy and suave, from his orchestra. If the virtuosity and dash hadn't been there, the acoustics alone wouldn't have saved the event; but they were there, filling the nave with a delicate resonating blur that never clouded the music. (I was sitting in the twelfth row; that blur might have put on weight at the rear.) During the first quick movement of the concerto grosso, while Ms Roberts and Mr Mealy conjured up, with their antiphonal duelling, the illusion of their own multiplication, I fancied the sound came from the hummingbird wings of a host of angels. Everything seemed to lift and rise. I was certainly exalted.

The Dixit Dominus is a very grand swatch of baroque fabric, and there are several fine recordings, including one by Mr Parrott; I urge you to add one to your collection. Where Messiah is impassioned and fervent, the Dixit is operatic and violent. This suits the words of the psalm, half of which catalogue a rather archaic pile-up of broken bones. The nine-sectioned, forty-minute work starts off with echoing cries of "Dixit!" in the minor, setting an urgent mood the persists even when the music pipes down, as in the eerie "De torrente." (Head-bashing is almost visible when the chorus pounds out the four syllables of "conquassabit" ("he shall crush") over and over.) The Dixit Dominus has the brilliance of Vivaldi, but the heritage of Saxon counterpoint, which Handel shared with Bach, makes for a mightier impact.

Throughout this dramatic piece, the Collegium played with the ordered fury of a wildly-streaked marble column. Thanks again to the acoustics, the six choristers sounded like several dozen. The soloists were all nimble and proficient; I would single out bass Curtis Streetman, whose big, clear voice was always clearly audible, and sopranos Nathalie Paulin an Tamara Matthews, paired in the Dixit Dominus. Eric Milnes delivered a strong continuo from the portatif organ on the altar. (October 2004)

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