Musica Nuova presented a two-part program of early vocal and instrumental music on October 9 at the Friends Meetinghouse in Cambridge. The first half consisted of Italian music ranging from the late 16th to the early 18th centuries; the latter half featured English music of the same period. The performers were mezzo-soprano Amanda Keil (also Artistic Director of Musica Nuova), Suzanne Cartreine at the harpsichord, Scott Lemire on theorbo, and Joshua Schreiber Shalem on viola da gamba; in the English section, storyteller Doria Hughes made a spoken contribution.
Dispensing with an “authentic” programming approach, the performers selected pieces in each half to suggest two dramatic storylines. The first half, entitled “It’s Complicated . . .”, commenced with a keyboard sonata prelude by Francesco Geminiani, whose rhythmic freedom and improvisatory quality hark back to the unmeasured preludes of Louis Couperin. Ms. Cartreine was convincingly spontaneous here.
Although we were curiously deprived of a printed translation for the first song, Giulio Caccini’s “La bella man vi stringo,” Ms. Keil’s acting and singing clearly conveyed a love song. Jacopo Peri’s “Lungi dal vostro lume” was a plangent lament from a maid far from her lover. Mr. Lemire supplied a tender theorbo accompaniment, and Ms. Keil made particularly expressive use of a rising half-tone motif throughout. In Girolamo Frescobaldi’s “Canzona per basso solo,” Mr. Shalem and Ms. Cartreine alternated gravity and dance-like exuberance, reinforcing the pain and joy in love. Though there were sporadic instances of impure gamba tuning, Mr. Shalem‘s “messa di voce” was nicely comparable to Ms. Keil’s.
Before the next selection, there was a rude interruption of cell phone ringing — until Ms. Keil picked up her prop phone and began purring Italian to her “lover” Carlo. It was quickly apparent, though, that the cad Carlo was dumping her over the phone. This led quite effectively into the rage and humiliation of Frescobaldi’s “Così mi disprezzate,” in which Ms. Keil had the opportunity to display some impressive coloratura as she vented. Alessandro Piccinini’s Toccata IV, tenderly played by Mr. Lemire, allowed a mood transition into grief. Barbara Strozzi’s “L’amante segreto” alternated dramatic lamentations with subdued yearning for death in a noble passacaglia which seemed almost epic in this context. Extrapolating somewhat from Strozzi’s text, near the end Ms. Keil picked up another prop, a kitchen knife, and began considering how best to exsanguinate herself. Almost immediately, she put the knife down to launch vigorously into Claudio Monteverdi’s “Laudate Dominum.” Perhaps a sudden recollection that suicide would be a mortal sin? Finally, though, we get reassurance that the singer has mostly regained her equilibrium in Sigismondo d’India’s poignant “Piangono al pianger mio.” She is subdued and resigned but no longer suicidal, and the sweet sounds of the theorbo are like attempts at consolation.
In the second half, styled “Crazy for You,” we had another “the course of true love never did run smooth” storyline, this time thoughtfully narrated by Doria Hughes between musical numbers. The story in a nutshell is that Bess and Tom are young lovers in the countryside who plan to elope; this is prevented by circumstances beyond their control, and they end up in London, ultimately in the mental hospital Bedlam (St. Mary of Bethlehem); but together, so all is well. The prelude was Tobias Hume’s “A Humourous Pavin,” either ironically named or a play on the composer’s name, as it was far more courtly than humorous. It was skillfully rendered by Mr. Shalem. After Ms. Hughes shared her first narration, Ms. Keil in John Eccles’ song “The Foolish Maid” made us feel both her yearning for Tom and gradually growing worries that she has acted too hastily. In “Methinks the Poor Town.” by an anonymous composer, a native Londoner takes over momentarily, commenting sardonically on his city.
Unfortunately, this was the single number on the program whose text was not clearly audible; one could get a general idea from Ms. Keil’s facial expressions and gestures, yet couldn’t avoid feeling one was missing out.
The lovely Elizabethan lute piece “Poore Tom” well expresses his tender melancholy when he finds out how Bess is making ends meet in London. In another Eccles song, “I Burn,” in which Bess conveys how passionately she still wants to be with Tom above all others, dramatic vocal coloratura alternates with instrumental display. When she mistakenly comes to believe that Tom is dead, Bess pours out her heart in the plaint of Philip Rosseter’s “No Grave for Woe.” Here Ms. Keil used increasingly elaborate ornamentation to deepen the pathos before, most movingly, removing it for a plainspoken conclusion. From here it’s but a short step to madness for Bess, and in fact, in Henry Purcell’s “Bess of Bedlam” she does have a proto-mad scene. Ms. Keil chewed the scenery most effectively, both musically and dramatically. In the end, the lovers are reunited in Bedlam Hospital with salutary effect on both. The program concluded with a moral in the form of one last Eccles song, Mortals Learn Your Lives to Measure, an exuberant assurance that Tom and Bess will live happily ever after, even confined in a mental hospital, because they are together at last.
I believe the programming conceit worked well here because, in addition to the accomplished performances, it seemed that all the participants had input into the selections, and a professional storyteller actually conceived and narrated the second storyline. Also, there were alternation of vocal and instrumental, a variety of composers, and variation in instrumental combinations so it could never become repetitive in any way. In my view, Musica Nuova substantially achieved their aim of “a new look at early music.”