in: Reviews

June 18, 2013

Singing, Dancing and Drinking at BEMF

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Tragicomedia brought some late night life to Jordan Hall on Saturday with “Singen, Spielen, Tanzen, Trinken”—effectively a Boston Early Music Festival revue show of 17th-century music from Germany, Italy, and France. The lush continuo band directed by guitarist Stephen Stubbs and joined by violinist Milos Valent, harpsichordist Michael Sponseller, and viola da gambists Laura Jeppeson and Beiliang Zhu backed a crew of guest singers including sopranos Amanda Forsythe and Valerie Vinzant, tenor Zachary Wilder, and baritone Christian Immler. Apparently this is how half the cast of Almira entertains itself on a night off.

The eccentric and sociable audience, meanwhile, appeared to be mostly made up of hardcore festival goers and the composers ranged from the celebrated (Monteverdi, Telemann, Handel), to the underrated (Schütz, Lully), to the forgotten and downright obscure (Knüpfer, Mattheson, and Lambranzi). The thoughtfully constructed program was meant to evoke the city of Hamburg at the beginning of Handel’s career when Italy and France ruled the European musical culture and the German Baroque was just finding its legs.

Tragicomedia and its guests presented the assemblage of short pieces with madcap staging. Tenor Jason McStoots made his first entrance just in the nick of time, as if late to the show, after the band had already begun the introduction to Sebastian Knüpfer’s madrigal “O Scherschliep! Messerschliep!” McStoot, displaying a clear, if simple vocal tone, was soon joined by Wilder and Immler, who filled out a trio that sang, for some reason, about scissor-grinding. Knüpfer didn’t write a particularly memorable tune, but theatrically this was a strong opener and the performance was sharp.

Immler returned to the stage for four songs by Georg Philipp Telemann, and was joined by soprano Lydia Brotherton who played coy to the baritone’s advances in the third song before telling him to get lost in the fourth. Again, the jaunty drama trumped the quality of the music, but Telemann’s writing was still interesting as a very early precursor of the Lieder repertoire. Brotherton was a keen soubrette and Immler a generally jovial baritone.

Up next, Forsyth arrived on scene, representing an Italian diva. She sang Sarei troppo felice, a cantata written by Handel during his stint in Rome. This was the first strong piece of music on the program, and Brotherton kept the recitative interesting and carried the aria with expressive intensity. Brotherton, still in character as a provincial German soprano, requested instruction from the visiting diva, and so the two together turned to Claudio Monteverdi’s madrigal “Chiome d’oro, bel tesoro,” pretending to sightread. The tenors then presented Heinrich Schütz’s “Guild’ne Haare, gleich Aurora,” which quite amusingly turned out to be a blatant ripoff of the earlier Monteverdi, but set in German. The sopranos did not approve of this 17th-century act of plagiarism.

After a little intermezzo danced by Caroline Copeland in a flashy harlequin outfit, the men sang some drinking songs by Jean-Baptiste Lully. This led to a scene from Cleopatra by Johann Mattheson, who is mostly known for assaulting Handel with a sword (famous alongside the Gesualdo murders and the J.S. Bach nanny-goat-bassoonist incident as one of the more notorious acts of composer violence). Regardless, this was the most touching piece of the night, with Vinzant playing a glamorous and haughty Cleopatra. At the end, she turned toward the corpse of Antonius, and the tilt of her head—a simple gesture—created a really affecting moment. The continuo group also came across particularly well in the Mattheson with the individual instruments clearly differentiated and used for subtle colorings.

The show ended with Gregorio Lambranzi’s “Dance of the drunken farmer,” again featuring Copeland’s Harlequin (otherwise a rather distracting presence seated onstage), and an ensemble act by Knüpfer—“Meer, Erd’ und Sonne trinken.” Throughout the night, the vocal and instrumental performances were strong, and the singers should also be commended for carrying the show with their lively and unmannered skit acting.

Ed. Note: A correction was made in the naming of two performers in response to Robert Mealy’s comment.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a Cambridge-based composer who’s recently been in residence at the Banff Centre and the Hambidge Center. Before that he attended Bard College where he studied with Joan Tower and George Tsontakis and earned a B.M. in composition and a B.A. in philosophy.

2 Comments

  1. I think Mr Pesetsky may have got his divas reversed: it was Lydia Brotherton who sang the Telemann, and Amanda Forsythe who sang Handel’s Roman cantata. Sebastian Knüpfer was one of Bach’s influential predecessors at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig; a quick search on Google can provide much information about him, including a fairly extensive entry on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sebastian_Knüpfer. Also of note: Beiliang Zhu and Laura Jeppesen were stepping in on short notice for Erin Headley, who was alas unable to play this concert – for the first time in the group’s nearly 25 years of concerts.

    Comment by robert mealy — June 18, 2013 at 2:58 pm

  2. The printed program was rather unclear on the who’s who but I thought I accurately matched it up. Will double check and correct. Thanks for the point out.

    As for Knüfer, despite his historical position in Leipzig, I think it’s safe to put him in the obscurity camp as a performed composer today. Certainly not a household name even to general classical audiences.

    Comment by Benjamin Pesetsky — June 18, 2013 at 4:45 pm

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