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Orpheus in the Upperworld


A chanterelle is a highly desirable kind of mushroom, or a German music publishing company (for classical guitar music), or (in French) a decoy, or a musical bottle. More likely its meaning (again in French) as the highest string of any stringed instrument is the one intended by the Ensemble Chanterelle, comprising Sally Sanford, soprano, Catherine Liddell, theorbo, and Brent Wissick, viola da gamba. They performed the short version of their available longer program, “Orpheus Old and New” during a noon-hour concert at the Boston Athenaeum on Thursday, May 6, 2010. The beautiful, resonant room was full, and as Wissick commented afterwards, the audience of all ages was fully “with us” in their enthusiasm. The ensemble was co-founded by Sanford and Liddell in 1984 and on this occasion gave a good demonstration of their Website’s description of their performances: “warm and engaging,” combining “humor, drama, passion and virtuosity with imaginative and innovative programming.”

The tripartite program opened with a group of arias written for an Orpheus character by three Italian composers of the early 17th century: Carlo Milanuzzi (“Tien del mio cor” from his ninth and last book of arias, 1643); Claudio Monteverdi (“Vi ricorda’o boschi ombrosi,” and “Tu se morta,” both from his L’Orfeo;) and Sigismondo d’Índia (“Piangono ad pianger mio,” from his first book of Le Musiche, Milan, 1609—neither the program notes nor the lovely poem, by Ottavio Rinuccini, make the Orfeo connection clear, but no matter). Here the ensemble’s well-practiced dramatic flair was at its best. Ms. Sanford began by giving a dramatic reading the English text of the Milanuzzi aria, which led immediately into the first hearing of her clear, vibrato-less, emphatic voice, full of Baroque affekt, sighing, laughing, bemoaning, enjoying. Her appoggiaturas approached from below were sung as deliberate loud dissonances, tuning up only at the last possible instant, thus increasing the drama of the moment. Her trills, slow and fast, either on the note, or as she ramped up or down the scale, were spectacularly appropriate. After the Milanuzzi, there was a narration, “The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice” (uncredited), read in turn by Ms. Liddell and Mr. Wissick. Ms. Sanford then continued to present (dramatically) an English translation of the texts for the Monteverdi and d’India works preceding each aria.

The centerpiece was a setting by James Blachly (b. 1980) of one of his two Rilke Songs for Soprano: “O komm und geh,” from Rainier Maria Rilje’s Orpheus Sonnets, II, 28. This one was commissioned by Ms. Sanford and the Ensemble in 2005, and premiered in March, 2009; the Athenaeum’s was its first performance in Massachusetts. In this case both the text and Ms. Sanford’s literal translation were fortunately printed in the program notes, because it is a difficult work to comprehend on first hearing: textually (in spite of Ms. Sanford’s excellent diction) and musically, because of the extreme leaps and dissonances.

The third portion comprised songs of Henry Purcell, preceded by another narration, this time from Hesiod. The three songs, “’Tis Nature’s Voice” (from Orpheus Britannicus), the familiar, “Music for a While,” and “If Music Be the Food of Love” (3rd version), did not have much to do with Orpheus, but gave Ms. Sanford a final chance to demonstrate her strong ability as a Baroque singer and voice teacher with her long-practiced skills. Her colleagues were more than equal to the task, performing on 20th-century replica’s of 17th-century instruments..

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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