in: Reviews

March 6, 2014

Madrigals by an Italian Teenager, ca. 1590.

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It was definitely an event that made me glad I lived in Boston. Where else would you be able to attend a concert featuring the madrigals of the precocious 14-year old Vittoria Aleotti? Cappella Clausura performed eight works from Aleotti’s publication of 18 madrigals, Ghirlanda de Madrigali. It was not only unique, it was a powerful and memorable concert (o.k., not quite unique since it is being repeated Sunday, Mar. 9).

The next day someone asked me about the concert, saying “aren’t those little pieces all alike?” Hmm, kinda. Like gems in a necklace, or flowers in a garland, as they were so aptly called in the 1593 publication. They are alike enough to belong together, but if you focus in on the details you see how miraculously distinct each one is. It’s definitely a different type of listening. The through composed pieces are closely meshed with poetry, each idea of the text being expressed by a unique musical phrase. With the overall structure also built on a reading and understanding of the poems, the pieces might seem as similar as the poems, but emphatically they are each distinct. If you like madrigals—in the specific sense, of the serious and refined Italian poetic form, then you will indeed like these. If you’re not used to listening to madrigals, then this art form, demanding focused listening, might pass you by.

Aleotti’s writing demands careful attention. If you’re not following along with the words, you’ll miss the point. It’s a multidimensional art form: music sculpted to enhance the poetry. And Cappella Clausura has spent a lot of time devoted to these repertoire. I remember I enjoyed their 2011 performance of the Ghirlanda, but last Sunday there was some exciting chemistry — the ensemble meshed in conveying the full intensity and emotion of the works. The group blends different vocal styles, some voices a bit muddied with vibrato, others more the clear “early music” aesthetic, but as conductor, LeClair has obviously worked hard to get them to listen to each other and work as a tightly knot whole.

Cappella Clausura is to be commended for bringing Aleotti’s achievement to life, in all its nuanced gestures and vivid but precisely illustrated emotions. For instance in the setting of “Cor mio,” an ascending leap of an octave underscores “Io piango”—I weep—followed by a despondent descent and release, like the unclenching of tightened muscles, as the tortured lover meditates further. We can certainly imagine later in her cloistered life the young nun might have been embarrassed at the unabashed sensuality of the settings.

I actually wished I could hear some of the pieces twice, in performance. But the program was also serving as a CD release party, of the ensemble’s recording of the complete Ghirlanda. This is an important disc to have; now I can steep myself in this intimate and exquisite musical world.

Some works by Dowland and Gesualdo were intermixed with eight pieces by Aleotti. The case of Gesualdo has often led me to a speculative question – would he be remembered in music history at all if he had not sensationally murdered his wife and her lover? LeCLair had carefully selected four of Gesualdo’s works that complimented Aleotti’s. Both composers set slightly different poems that begin “T’amo, mia vita.” In this case Gesualdo’s is the more dramatic, with its wide spanning range of the opening gesture, and the upward cascades of the word “Amore.”

And, in this concert I saw the future: a singer (baritone James Dargan) singing from his IPad. It makes sense: it’s light and you can hold it and turn pages with the same hand; in the case of instrumentalists with busy hands, you can turn pages with a foot mouse.

The English composer John Dowland was renowned for his lute songs. Some that he had arranged for four parts were sung in the concert. In this texture of accompanied melody, the danger is that in singing all four parts, the lower voices become rather busy when given text.  The ensemble of twelve voices was mostly adept at avoiding this hazard. However three pieces were performed one to a part, and in Quartet I’s “Can she excuse” the soprano (Teri Kowak) was a little overbalanced (and also she had some annoying slides). Quartet 2’s “Come again” offered ornamentation as a sensitive filigree, an element of adding to the larger pacing of the piece. And in Quartet III, “If my complaints,” the singers needed to have more electricity and make more connections with each other. Nevertheless, the Dowland songs, with their accessible tunefulness, offered charm and variety in contrast to the more intensely focused madrigals.

On the whole, it was a well-balanced, thoughtful, and satisfying program. St. Paul’s Church in Brookline is a warm and intimate setting, and completely suitable.

Additional performance, Eliot Church, Newton Corner, Mar. 9, Sunday, 4 pm

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is President of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy and The Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc..

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