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Musical Just-Rightness in Aston Magna’s Artemisia


On Saturday, July 17, the Aston Magna Festival closed this summer’s season with a concert entitled 17th-Century Italian Art and Music: What Artemisia Heard, at the Daniel Arts Center of Simon Rock College in Great Barrington, following on a performance the night before at Bard College. For this compilation of Italian and English vocal and instrumental music, Artistic Director and Baroque violinist Daniel Stepner handed over the conceptual reins to theorboist and baroque guitarist Richard Savino. Like last year’s closing concert that centered around the Spanish painter, Francisco Goya, this year’s offering projected works by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-ca. 1652-6), an Italian female portrayer of voluptuous personages and musical instruments who was influenced by Caravaggio (1581-1610). Representations of both their paintings, together with the titles (and translations of the first lines if vocal) of the works being performed, were projected on a back screen — a nice solution to not being able to see the program in a darkened room — while warm Fresnel lighting played across the performers and their instruments. The first-rate musicians included, in addition to the above, Julie Leven (Baroque violin), Laura Jeppesen (viola da gamba), Michael Sponseller (harpsichord), with vocal soloists Jennifer Ellis Kampani and Nell Snaidas (sopranos) and Deborah Rentz-Moore (mezzo-soprano).

Reflecting Artemesia’s mobile life, the program was divided into five parts: Rome (1593-1614), Florence (1614-1620), Venice (1626-1630), Naples (1630-1638), England (1638-1642), and finally, Tutta L’Italia (1642-1656), altogether a splendid array of multi-faceted music, ordered to provide both continuity and contrast. Rome opened sedately, but ended with a Villanelle Suite on “L’Onda che limpada,” by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, incorporating a lively Ballo, Gagliarda, and Corrente that almost made you want to get up and dance. The voice of the versatile Nel Snaidas was introduced by Vergilio Mazzocchi’s solo cantata, Sdegno campion audace (with continuo only). After an initial Sinfonia by Marco da Gagliano, Florence dwelled on the other two sopranos, and then all three via Francesca Caccini’s love songs, Lasciatemi qui soli, Io mi distruggio, and Che desia di saper (presumably in the versions edited by Savino and published by Indiana University Press in 2004). Here Jennifer Ellis Kampani’s light-voiced but dramatic singing began to shine as clearly so idiomatic in this music.

The highpoint, as in many concerts, was reached just before intermission. Venice revealed Savino’s solo musical excellence by a lively guitar solo, a Ciaconna by Domenico Pellegrini. This was followed by Monteverdi’s oft-recorded Zefiro torna, from his sixth book of Madrigals, sung by Snaidas and Ellis Kampani. From the opening “Return O Zephyr” to the final line, “As my Fate wills it, now I weep, now I sing,” the singers warmed to the poignancy of the text, and to the splendid richness of this music. This was followed by Monteverdi’s happier, Come dolce hoggi l’auretta (How sweet the breeze today), sung by all three. Their well matched voices and clear enthusiasm for part-singing enlivened these works to pure pleasure.

Not that it was all downhill from there by any means. From Naples came Falconieri’s vigorous Folia pecha me  señora Doña Tarolilla, unlike any Folia I have ever heard — if this is supposed to be variations on same, the ground bass was impossible to detect. Rather it presented continuo player Laura Jeppesen with an opportunity for an expert romp on her viola da gamba, which she performed with great energy and a wry smile. From England we heard two dances from a suite by William Lawes, and a song and a duet by Nicholas Lanier: the first, a long “No More Shall Meads be Deck’d with Flow’rs” sung with clear diction and musical emphasis by Ellis Kampani, and the second, “Though I am Young,” by Rentz-Moore and Snaidas, whose voices are so closely aligned, even though their range varies, that we were hanging on every note of such musical just-rightness.

The final Tutta L’Italia brought forth Luzzasco Luzzaschi’s solo madrigal, Aura soave (Gentle breeze), sung by Ms. Rentz-Moore, who soared sublimely throughout her wide range, the lowest notes providing quietly spectacular added drama to the poignant text. Harpsichordist Michael Sponseller finally got his soloistic due with an almost too difficult and dense Passemezzo by Giovanni Picchi. The concert closed with two “battle” pieces: a Battaglia by Marco Uccellini, and the Fan Battaglia by Luigi Rossi, the latter a cantata for the three voices and instrumental ensemble. The projections for these were three paintings on the same subject (“Judith Slaying Holofernes”): one by Caravaggio, and two by Artemesia, namely the Naples version of ca. 1613, and the Uffiizi version of 1620, the latter hidden by the owning Medici family and considered too gory to reveal to the public until 2002 in the Uffizi Gallery at Florence. Art historians discuss a possible autobiographical significance of this painting; nevertheless there were groans from the audience at repeated close-ups of the most brutal details. Looking away, the music was, however, glorious.

The Aston Magna Festivals were founded in 1972 by the late harpsichordist Albert Fuller (1926-2007). Daniel Stepner, who this past season concluded nearly a quarter century as concert master of the Handel & Haydn Society, has more than risen to the challenge of maintaining the high standards thus established, and has this year expanded the concert venues to include some performances at Brandeis University in Waltham. Critic Michael Steinberg once said (something like), “Anything done over a long period of time is done well.” That has certainly proven to be the case in this instance.

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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