Musica Nuova, the ensemble that takes “a new look at early music” presented its latest program on Saturday, February 5, at the Friends Meetinghouse in Cambridge. It surely would have attracted a much larger audience but for the inclement weather that made travel quite treacherous. This is unfortunate because Musica Nuova, under the artistic direction of Amanda Keil, is striking out in unorthodox but compelling directions to attract new listeners to older music too often thought staid and stuffy. This program was titled BlackBerry Jam, and, despite using Italian music more than four centuries old, its cleverly crafted storyline involves a pair of co-workers in a modern-day office whose neuroses about love and relationships cause much agony and ecstasy along the way. The gifted small ensemble are mezzo Amanda Keil, baritone Thann Scoggin, Scott Lemire on theorbo, Suzanne Cartreine at the harpsichord, and Joshua Schreiber Shalem playing the viola da gamba.
After the instrumentalists are seated and tuned, the singers, engrossed in their BlackBerries, enter their “office.” Suddenly, the two people look up, notice each other, and there is instant chemistry. Scoggin’s character is inspired to present a flower to Keil and launches into “I have seen on earth” — I am supplying titles in English — by Marco da Gagliano. Its Petrarch text has the standard unfavorable comparison of earth’s greatest beauties to the beloved.
Scoggin’s singing skillfully used the period style to accentuate the text: there were notable melismata on sole (the envious sun) and star (holding back floods), a large messa di voce on intento (“Heaven was so intent on this harmony”), and two final marvelous melismata on l’aere and vento (“The air and breeze full of sweetness”). In response, Keil sings a considerably abridged version of the same text, set by Sigismondo d’India. Omitting most of the hyperbole of the full text, this song makes a stark contrast to the first; whereas Scoggin’s song is accompanied by harpsichord and gamba, Keil’s uses theorbo only and conveys a much more inward mood — though no less intense. The slower tempo might have made it possible to ornament more frequently, but Keil also chose to do so mainly on key words of the text. Last, the Gagliano setting is robust; the d’India delicate and feminine. It was fascinating to hear how different two composers’ conception of the same text could be.
But love is never a simple matter. Keil made a comic gem of the next piece, Luigi Rossi’s “I am a girl who does not know how to love” (i.e., “I’m lousy at relationships”), pleading for kindness, since she can’t handle rejection. The choreography is most effective: she repeatedly gets very close to him, then suddenly jumps back, realizing how dangerously vulnerable she is (the refrain “I am a girl …” recurs obsessively throughout). He, of course, is thoroughly frustrated by this, but she hardly notices.
Three songs of Giulio Caccini followed, first “Burn, my heart,” sung movingly by Scoggin, essentially declaring that love is a sweet snare for which he would gladly give up his freedom. Her response, “Sweetest of sighs,” is similarly sweet at the outset, but after an emphatic “but” she begins to speak of love as martyrdom; Keil’s thespian skills are a great asset here. In the third song, “No more war,” Scoggin speaks of love as conquest on a battlefield and makes us realize that he is as neurotic as she. By the end both are in a state of discomfiture, and they “move to opposite corners.”
At this point, the first purely instrumental piece was performed, a single-movement sonata by Giovanni Paolo Cima. This is an example of how, in Italy at this time, even the instrumental music was influenced by vocal writing. In place of the singer, the regular cello-like gamba is replaced by a treble version of it, while the theorbo now reinforces the harpsichord bass. With over a dozen strings, it can reach some deliciously low pitches.
In the next song by Giovanni Ghizzolo, “Listen, Phyllis, how it thunders”, Scoggin reveled in the frequent word-painting, but its references to Jove are perhaps not providential for the lovers, given the god’s profligacy in bestowing his favors. Her reply, Ghizzolo’s “Here, happy lovers,” seems to convey her growing fear that his love is not the real thing (“Cupid without arrows and wings”).
This leads to the inevitable falling-out with flaring tempers, rejected flower, and papers thrown on the floor. The pair have crossed the thin line from adoration to detestation, and they get in each other’s face in Alessandro Steffani’s “Love be cursed!”, full of furious runs and competitive love-cursing, great fun for the audience, if not the characters.
Following intermission, harpsichordist Suzanne Cartreine played Girolamo Frescobaldi’s “Variations on Romanesca,” pointing up the variety of rhythmic figures that characterize each variation. Then Scoggin rendered Claudio Monteverdi’s ciaccona, “I want to depart this life,” declaring his suicidal intentions with the same extravagant type of pronouncements with which he had declared his love at the beginning. And similarly, we heard an extremely florid melisma on the key word frangono ([hopes] dashed to pieces), to cite one instance. When he aims a letter opener at his midriff, Keil’s eyes widen momentarily before she concludes that he’s not serious and even laughs at him.
Soon enough, though, he is laughing at her when she receives a pink slip and sings her own affecting lament of abandonment, Ghizzolo’s “My Tirsi, dear Tirsi.” During the song he is beginning to soften, though he tries to hide it. She continues in the same vein with Monteverdi’s “You were once all mine,” heaping the pathos higher until he is quite overcome with remorse.
At that point Scoggin’s character sings Caccini’s “Under the night sky, with the stars an inferno of love,” a text only marginally less extravagant than his opening praise of her beauty, but now appealing to the stars to make her love him. The nymph-and-shepherd dialogue that follows, Ghizzolo’s “Why do you weep, shepherd?”, though superficially sympathetic on her part, can also be read (if one is cynical enough) as her ascertaining the strength of her position. She finds his answers satisfactory, and they are officially reconciled, the piece ending aptly enough with the singers on a unison.
The lovely final song, “Oh, what pleasure” by Ghizzolo, recapitulates at least two of the poetic themes heard before: love as a sweet snare and the unequaled beauty of the beloved. The pair sing alternate stanzas and dance in a Renaissance style, seeming to symbolize love at arms’ length. They may be together, but the neuroses remain.
Amanda Keil and Musica Nuova imaginatively assemble programs of carefully chosen songs while formulating thought-provoking, often humorous storylines. They give excellent performances in which Baroque performance style is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. One hopes that soon they will be performing to full houses regardless of foul weather.