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Impromptu Program from Exsultemus’s Arsenal


“Man down! Man down!” was the cry (though not verbatim, of course) from Exsultemus’s general director Shannon Canavin on October 28, as singer Paul Guttry’s illness was announced at the opening of the concert. The group was forced to replace its planned program — a madrigal comedy by Orazio Vecchi — with a recital of vocal solos and duets from the seventeenth century. In view of the fact that the program had been assembled the same day, the recital at Boston’s First Lutheran Church in Back Bay featured a number of entertaining and moving performances, sustaining an impressive level of technical security and programmatic flow.

Soloists included soprano Shannon Canavin and countertenor Martin Near (Exsultemus’s general director and musical director, respectively), as well as soprano Brenna Wells and tenor Jason McStoots; accompanying the group were Emily Walhout on lirone and Catherine Liddell on theorbo and lute. All of these artists are frequent performers in the Boston area, and many have participated in prestigious recording projects as well as concert engagements throughout the US and Europe.

The concert opened with Sigismondo d’India’s Lamento d’Olimipia (from the composer’s fifth book of vocal solos, 1623), sung by Brenna Wells, who was accompanied by Liddell and Walhout. This work stands as a prime example of the Baroque lament, a genre whose popularity in Italy skyrocketed with Monteverdi’s famous Lamento d’Arianna of 1608. Wells was expressive and engaging; she exhibited a strong understanding of the Baroque lament style, including declamation, decorum, and pacing. Due to the program change, the opening selection was the only work to include lirone player Walhout, who played beautifully and provided an effective accompaniment to the lament. For this work and throughout the concert Liddell provided both solid and expressive support to the soloist. Wells performed two more solo selections, each displaying the same skill and captivating “readings” of the text.

For d’India’s setting of an anonymous text on the subject of love’s arrows, Wells and Canavin displayed impressive dexterity while creating a very pleasing ensemble. Canavin was featured as soloist in four selections, by John Dowland, Giralomo Frescobaldi, and Giovanni Felice Sances. (The latter composer, little know today, was quite popular throughout Italy during his lifetime.) Though listed in the program as a soprano, Canavin seemed much more at home in her lower tessitura, executing a number of expressive passages with a warm, inviting tone. Canavin’s timbre was especially well suited to the selections by Sances, whose music, though written by the Italian composer, bore substantial aural resemblances to Spanish folk music of the period (both were given over-repetitive bass patterns that, although popular in Italy during the seventeenth century, are believed to have originated in Spanish musical folk forms).

Tenor Jason McStoots performed two solo works, one by D’India and one by Jacopo Peri. In both selections, McStoots offered a full sound and strong stage presence in his engaging “readings” of Peri’s recitation-like melodic style.

Countertenor David Near offered one solo selection and was later joined by Wells in the concert’s closing number. In the former, Near displayed power and grace as well as impressive timbral control, though he did encounter a few minor intonation issues; moreover, his pleasing style of declamation was tempered with discretion. The latter selection is a verse-and-refrain setting of a text that offers an interesting mixing of imagery juxtaposing the healing power of Jesus’s wounds with the nourishment of nursing at Mary’s breast. The text, set by seventeenth-century Milanese nun Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, features a number of stunning dissonances as well as a lively and stirring refrain. The duo performed the work in a highly engaging fashion, offering a pleasing close to the evening’s “impromptu” program.

Joel Schwindt is a PhD candidate in Musicology at Brandeis University.


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