For the final concerts of its 2012-13 season, the Cambridge Society for Early Music presented the ensemble Gut Reaction in a fascinating program of music from Venice from the 16th to 18th-centuries at the Salem Athenaeum on Saturday evening.
Gut Reaction is a new group, with four members of the Boston-based chamber orchestra A Far Cry (violinists Sarah Darling and Jesse Irons, violist Jason Fisher, and cellist Michael Unterman), playing on gut-strung period instruments joined by Seattle based harpsichordist (and CSEM Bodky Award laureate) Byron Schenkman. The group scoured stacks of music produced in Renaissance and Baroque Venice for works that complemented each other and assembled a program in the manner that great chefs design a banquet.
At the trade crossroads between Europe and the East, Venice was a rich melting pot where composers broke with the orthodoxy of Palestrina and Victoria, experimented with novel harmonies, instrumental combinations and forms, and created a;stile moderno (modern style, as heady and unpredictable as any 20th-century modernist movement), then distilled it into the early classical style. Gut Reaction offered a chronologically ordered survey of these developments, though they are so enamored of the intensity and expressivity of the; stile moderno that they opted to begin in this period for the first half, proceeding to the mid->18th century, early Classical style. Then after intermission, they jumped back to the Renaissance and moved forward again towards the same stile moderno which began the evening. The program also featured music from a range of Venetian backgrounds. Many of the composers had ties to San Marco, Venice’s basilica and a justly famous center of music making, but others drew from composers at Venice’s lesser hospitals and orphanages, and itinerant freelancers.
The audience started clapping when Darling and Schenkman walked into the performance area, though they had come out to tune Darling’s violin. Several minutes later, James Nicholson, president of CSEM, introduced the concert. Gut Reaction came out after that, with Irons taking the first violin, violinists and violist standing, and cellist seated. They began with music by Biagio Marini, a pioneer of violin technique who worked with Monteverdi at San Marco. The Balletto secondo and Passacaglia come from his Op. 22 of 1655. These works set the tone for much of the evening; the Balletto is a series of binary movements, alternating between slow and stately progressions and spiky, fast dances with lots of call-and-response exchanges between the strings. The Passacaglia started from a basic bass line chord progression, spiced up with choice chromaticisms. The variations featured increasingly elaborate embellishments by Mr. Irons, a few unexpected key shifts, and a radiant major key coda.
Darling spoke about the privilege of playing in the Salem Athenaeum, the main ground floor room of the Athenaeum’s book collection, where the audience was seated around the players in an intimate but resonant acoustic. The group resumed with music of Giovanni Legrenzi, an organist who rose through the musical hierarchy from outside the city, through two of the ospedale, and becoming maestro di cappella at San Marco in his last years. His Sonata quarta à 4, from the Op. 10 of 1673, had three fast movements, the outer ones contrapuntal, the central one homophonic, bookended with languid transitions. The group nimbly negotiated the mercurial shifts of mood and swift passagework.
The switch to the 18th-century was quite abrupt, with the Concerto for strings in E Minor, RV 134 of Antonio Vivaldi, the celebrated music director at Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà. The opening movement is one of Vivaldi’s quirkier ones, beginning with a fugue on a chromatic descending subject, moving through development as the subject recurs like a cantus firmus in one instrument after other, then exchanges in fast canon between two players. A long pedal point is held by the continuo cello and harpsichord, while the upper strings exchange a faster version of the theme, and it ends on a whisper. But in this and the subsequent walking Andante and contrapuntal Allegro, the whimsy of the stile moderno is gone. Darling commented on the transition, where the writing remains vital and spirited but “triangles become squares” and the stream of consciousness style becomes more predictable.
With the Concerto in A Major for Harpsichord and Strings of the 1740’s, the transition to the simpler style galant was complete. Platti may have studied with Vivaldi (as Vivaldi may have studied with Legrenzi) but his compositional style reflected contemporary developments. Gone are the complex interactions of the preceding works, here the harpsichord soloist alternates with the strings with minimal interaction, and within the orchestra, the first violinist has the spotlight while the other strings support less independently. The whimsy remained in the harpsichord solos, which swooped up and down the keyboard in florid scales and arpeggios and gave Schenkman a chance to show off his deft passagework skills.
After an intermission punctuated by more violin tuning for Darling, the group assembled with Darling taking the first violin stand. Unterman introduced the next set of madrigal-inspired 16th-century pieces. “Anchor che col partire” is a four part madrigal published in 1577 in Venice by Cipriano de Rore. It meditates in beautiful imitative counterpoint on the dying that comes with parting, and the life that comes flooding back with returning. It has been performed in four unaccompanied vocal parts, and by a vocal soloist with three instrumental parts. It’s interesting to hear it played by four strings, which bring out the bloom in the consonances (albeit with the occasional tuning gremlins that can plague period instrument performances) and bittersweet anguish of the suspensions. This was followed by a viola bastarda setting of the madrigal by San Marco instrumentalist Girolamo Dalla Casa. Unterman played this with support from Schenkman, and made impressive show of Dalla Casa’s rapid-fire “rocking out and shredding,” as Unterman puts it, on the Cipriano tune. Then, the group proceeded to a strings-and-harpsichord adaptation of the celebrated “Lamento della ninfa” of San Marco’s greatest maestro, Claudio Monteverdi. The men took the part of the Greek chorus of shepherds, commenting “poor thing” in strict time as Darling dispatched the role of the distracted, distressed, discarded nymph with moving freedom and affect.
Schenkman played two solo harpsichord works from 1600 by the journeyman Giovanni Picchi. The Ballo ditto “Il Steffanin” was a series of binary style segments with increasingly complex right hand parts. The Toccata, described as “an absurd piece of music by an Italian otherwise unknown,” is a loopy, flourish-filled, free-wheeling improvisation, brought to breathtaking life by Schenkman’s dextrous fingerwork and rock-solid rhythmic base.
The final two works came full circle back to the stile moderno. Johann Rosenmueller was choir master at the Ospedale della Pietà before Vivaldi; his Sonata settima à 4 moves even faster in its transitions between fast contrapuntal segments and slower cadential reveries. It begins with a rising chromatic line exchanged in canon between the instruments and ends quietly on a slow figure moving in halting phrases. The program concluded with the Sonata decima quinta à 4 of Dario Castello, another instrumentalist under Monteverdi at San Marco. The switches between fast and slow, angular and languid were even faster here, and the work ended in a brilliant flourish.
The group received warm applause from the Salem audience, and then returned to play a Ciaccona by Vivaldi. The abrupt switch out of stile moderno could be felt again, though it was an entertaining fireworks display of violin technique from Irons and Darling, playing in unison and in response to each other in quick succession and demonstrating a specimen-book of violin techniques of the time with élan.
Programs like this are one reason that I love living in Boston; it’s an appealing and entertaining collection of unknown works by unknown composers, lesser known pieces by standby composers, and unusual arrangements of cherished works. Gut Reaction makes for a model Boston ensemble, researching meticulously, watching each other carefully, grinning gleefully at the dippier moments, and displaying a wonderful mix of passion and style. There are two more chances to hear it this weekend, on Sunday at 4 p.m. at Ascension Memorial Church, Ipswich and Monday at 7:30 p.m. at Christ Church, Cambridge.