Yesterday afternoon, El Dorado Ensemble offered a respite from last-minute tax preparation in the form of a concert entitled, “Capricious Italians: A 17th-century Musical Journey” at the Somerville Museum. The concert explored repertoire by Italian composers who traveled as far north as Denmark and Sweden, exporting the best of instrumental composition to princely courts interested in securing the most contemporary musical artistry. El Dorado showcased a wide variety of repertoire for violas da gamba, violone, lute and theorbo, written by an assortment of composers — many of whom were “avant-garde” or at least harbingers of a more modern style during the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
The whitewashed walls and upper windows of the Somerville Museum offered a charming and light-filled venue, and that the space was crowded is more a positive testament to an audience for early music than a criticism of the Museum. El Dorado has a loyal following, and given the high level of artistry from ensemble members Carol Lewis, Janet Haas, Paul Johnson, Alice Mroszczyk, Mai-Lan Broekman and Olav Chris Henriksen, it was easy to see why almost every seat was filled.
The members of the group were professional but not pretentious. Henriksen’s informal comments about the pieces were illuminating and engaging, offering historical and stylistic context for unfamiliar repertoire. Arranged in a semi-circle, the six performers provided an excellent sense of ensemble. On either end sat Carol Lewis and Janet Haas, both on treble viol, although Haas occasionally switched to tenor viol. Lewis, a co-founder of SoHip (Society for Historically Informed Performance) and current president of the Viola da Gamba Society-New England, offered a consistently exquisite tone matched by energetic articulation. Haas, often her antiphonal counterpart, matched Lewis in both musical expression and rhythmic accuracy, offering a sense of balance for the entire ensemble. Both performers offered stunning filigree in the Intradas of Alessandro Orologio (ca. 1550-1633). In the Fantasia Chromatica of Diomedes Cato (before 1570-1620), which Henriksen called a “chromatic snowstorm,” the imitative descending chromatic lines called upon lament rhetoric but were passionately meditative, with the lower viols leaning into the deeper sonorities. Alice Mroszczyk’s bass viol sound was also particularly present and full in the Canzon Decimanona of Gioseffo Guami (ca. 1540-1611). Mai-Lan Broekman, playing bass viol and violone, offered a consistently velvety sound, especially on the latter instrument.
The program was peppered with solo offerings from Henriksen. His performance on the archlute of Il Ciarlino Capriccio Cromatica by Pietro Paolo Mellij (1579-after 1620) was particularly compelling. While Henriksen described the piece as “avant-garde” (as it assuredly was for the time), the two-and-a-half octaves of chromatic scales were a platform for highly-nuanced and well-integrated counterpoint, executed with elegance by both composer and performer. Henriksen’s real virtuosity, however, was best shown in Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger’s (1580-1651) theorbo fantasia on Arcadelt’s madrigal “Ancidetemi pur.” When Henriksen prefaced his performance with a comment equating the theorbo part to Charlie Parker’s bebop, I braced for impact, as I find that these comparisons often offer a more “hip” context but little in the way of accuracy. However, Henriksen’s analogy was absolutely sound, and his performance did indeed give us a glimpse of Yardbird on the theorbo. The violas da gamba’s lovely homophonic and significantly augmented version of the original madrigal anchored the improvisational musings of Henriksen’s theorbo part but allowed the softer flourishes and intricacies of the instrument to come through. Despite a brief tuning issue in a bass viol, the performance demonstrated the ensemble’s aptitude for a variety of musical styles.
For the most part, all members of the ensemble played with equal energy, and this was particularly apparent in Cato’s Gagliarda Favorito, with its rousing fanfare figures. El Dorado maintained the dancing athleticism of the galliard but also had a good sense of dance movement as concert piece, and this applied to almost all of the dances on the program. The only time there seemed to be incongruent ideas of expression was in the faster section of the Sonata Decima of Marco Antonio Ferro (fl. 1649-1662), one of two works on the program written specifically for violas da gamba. The ensemble did re-harness their collective energy during a rhythmic and rather Vivaldi-esque passage, to ultimately deliver a poignant and gorgeous slower section that featured delightful cascading motives between the treble and tenor viols.
Massimiliano Neri’s (ca. 1615-1666) Sonata Quinta, an extremely effective finale to the program, called upon the virtuosity of all six performers. Although published in 1651, the work intriguingly foretells later Viennese classicism in its joyful gaiety and phrasing (which may not be all that remarkable given the composer’s service to Emperor Ferdinand III in Vienna). The history of contributions of Italian composers to the development of Austro-Germanic music is not a secret, but certainly groups like the El Dorado Ensemble are doing much to honor this fantastic repertoire.