NYS Baroque adds voices, touch of drama in season-closer
Celebrated period-instrument ensemble joins forces with Laura Heimes and ensemble newcomer ‘Vocantur’ in program of ‘theatrical music’
Theatrical music (opera, cantata, oratorio) has come a long way from its humble origins in late 16th-century Florence, and I think it’s safe to say that few listeners would confuse the declamatory melodic style of early monody with bel canto lyricism of such composers as Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. Just the same, it would be nice to be able to step back in time and experience first-hand the early 17th-century fascination with Greek antiquity and its emphasis of drama over the sensuality of the music.
NYS Baroque provided such an opportunity Sunday afternoon in its 2009-10 season-closer in Syracuse, presenting a program of theatrically-inspired instrumental and vocal works from the early-to-mid-Baroque period that invited its audience to re-examine traditional perspectives on how melody and drama intertwine. Guided by musicologist-performer William Cowdery’s informative (and feisty) pre-concert talk, which compared traditional definitions of lyricism to the dramatically-driven melodic material endemic to 17th-century practice, Sunday’s audience traveled back some 350 years to a time when the words, and not the composer’s fancy, crafted the melodic material.
Pitching early-Baroque accompanied songs to modern audiences is by no means an easy sell: The often effusive (and at times lugubrious) nature of the dramatically-driven melodies often appear, by today’s standards, maudlin — too much emotion crammed into too little music. But if Cowdery’s words were not entirely persuasive, you can credit the exquisite vocal prowess of soprano Laura Heimes for closing the deal. Heimes, the darling of the prior NYS Baroque program of Elizabethan lute songs (“Music for the Virgin Queen”) delighted the audience in her three numbers, and was in large part responsible for the historically informed program’s artistic success.
Heimes first appeared in Alessandro Grandi’s O Intemerata, a motet in the concertato style (contrasting bodies of sound) set for voice and instruments (mostly continuo here, which in this performance was played by theorbo, or bass lute, and organ). Heimes’ bell-like tone and purity of timbre immediately captured the listener’s attention, and her tasteful embellishments of Grandi’s monody were delicate and restrained, yielding an uncomplicated vocal texture that blossomed into what may best be described as a beautiful simplicity.
Compared with O Intemerata, Grandi’s Justus germinabit allows for much greater expression on the part of the singer, and the larger instrumental presence in this piece produced the antiphonal sound effects typical of the polychoral motets of Venetian composers associated with the St. Mark’s Cathedral (the concluding Alleluia in particular reminds me of the music of Heinrich Schütz). Heimes’ polished embellishments in this work were refined and stylistically correct, and delivered with the utmost grace and ease.
Sunday’s program also included Vocantur, the Ithaca-based vocal ensemble making its debut set of performances over the weekend in Ithaca and Syracuse under the baton (or in this case, the hands) of Scott Tucker, Director of Choral Music at Cornell University. Vocantur’s musical director, tenor Thom Baker, sang the title role on the final work on the program, Carissimi’s Historia de Jephte.
Although described in the program booklet as “a select community chamber ensemble,” Vocantur (which for this performance comprised 10 women and 7 men) sounded more like a semi-professional ensemble than a consortium of well-intentioned amateur singers. They delivered their two numbers (Monteverdi’s Beatus vir and the Carissimi Oratorio) alertly and with great enthusiasm, achieving a good blend of vocal timbre and delivering their words with superb diction. I was especially impressed with the coupling of vocal parts in thirds between men and women in the Monteverdi, which speaks well of the ensemble’s degree of preparation for their inaugural performance.
The men, in particular, achieved a sweet and agreeable blend of tone in the Monteverdi, and although they did have a tendency to sag in pitch in the testy high register, intonation was generally solid and their vocal delivery was well-balanced and strong in voice. The women, equally strong in voice, struggled on several occasions with slight (but noticeable) pitch problems throughout the afternoon.
Tucker proved a reliable conductor in the Carissimi, providing encouraging and affirming gesticulations (and ample cues) in the Fugite Chorus that I suspect proved reassuring to an ensemble eager to succeed at its first outing. The final chorus, the celebrated lament Plorate filii Israel — with its irresistible chains of suspensions — was sung with great poignancy and nuance of expression.
The combination of Baker and Heimes as Jephte and Filia (Jephte’s daughter), respectively, provided a solid foundation for Vocantur and its vocal soloists (in the Historicus numbers and bass solo).
Baker’s smooth, flexible tenor and pleasant vibrato was pleasing to the ear, and he projected well. Although he was understandably overshadowed at times by Heimes, Baker sang with a good deal of expression (and some light acting) throughout the oratorio. Baker’s vocal embellishments were not however especially smooth and convincing, and occasionally seemed forced — such as during the trilli (rapid repetitions on a single note), which never quite reached cruising speed.
Heimes, as Jephte’s innocent virginal daughter whose young life must be sacrificed to satisfy Jepthe’s promise to God in return for his victory over the Ammonites (will somebody please tell me why God takes such delight in these sacrifices?), gave a dramatically persuasive as well as musically resolute performance, and breathed life into her tragic character.
The instrumental works of the program, which consisted of two trio sonatas (the Sonata in A Minor of Francesco Cavalli and the Sonata Ottava of Giovanni Battista Fontana) as well as the Sinfonia in D Minor by Alessandro Stradella (which was essentially performed as a trio sonata, only not with two like-instruments), were nicely placed on the program to separate the vocal numbers and provide timbral contrast. Especially pleasant were the theorbo parts, played handsomely by Deborah Fox, as part of the continuo instruments (with organ).
Except for a brief miscue in the Cavalli Sonata, violinists Julie Andrijeski and Boel Gidholm were wonderful as the treble-instrument pair in the three chamber instrumental works performed. Kudos to Cowdery, who not only gave the pre-concert talk, but sang in the Monteverdi and also stepped in at the last minute for ailing organist, Leon Schelhase.
What: NYS Baroque presents Carissimi’s Jepthe, other early-middle Baroque works
Where: First Unitarian Universalist Church, 109 Waring Rd., Syracuse
When: April 11, 2010
Who: Laura Heimes, soprano, Thom Baker, tenor, Vocantur (vocal ensemble)
Time: Two hours, including intermission
Information: call (607) 533-4383 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Ticket prices: $5 to $25