I was early on my way to Aston Magna’s “Vice Squad” concert at Brandeis on Thursday, so in the spirit of the concert’s theme I dropped in at the Newton Marriott for a cocktail. It was an unfortunate choice, the jaundiced light and lugubrious atmosphere prompting me to gulp my drink and head out to the Slosberg Auditorium as quickly as I could. Perhaps this made me more susceptible than usual to a program where the music was secondary to the mild comic entertainment provided by texts on tobacco, love and sex, alcohol and coffee. It took some time to get its footing, but the evening ultimately ended in an atmosphere of louche triumph.
The program began ominously for those expecting slapstick. I don’t know if I have ever heard of the 14th century French composer Solage before, nor of the Chantilly Codex, a collection of pieces exemplifying the ars subtilior, a musical style of complexity in both sound and visual representation (it is available on imslp.org and is worth looking at for the opening pieces, rendered as a circle and a heart). His “Fumeux fume par fume” was without a doubt the most interesting piece on the program, thanks to its almost complete inscrutability. Using a tail-chasing text about smoking (“The smoker smokes, through smoke/smokey speculations”), the music is dense rhythmic-chromatic fog of three independent voices: two vocal lines and a bass (played by Laura Jeppesen on the viola da gamba). It was not perhaps the best way to introduce us to the tenor Frank Kelley and baritone Jesse Blumberg, two-thirds of the vocal ensemble (soprano Teresa Wakim would appear shortly), but was the most intellectually engaging piece of the evening.
But for a concert entitled “Vice Squad”, intellectual appeal really wasn’t the point. The smoking set continued with a song consisting of not-exactly spot-on metaphors comparing tobacco and love by Tobias Hume, and the rather melancholy “Edifying Thoughts of a Tobacco Smoker,” weakly attributed to J.S. Bach. It was here that the first glimmerings of playfulness came through. Kelley, whose sharp features and upswept hair suggest a combination of Sam Beckett and Lyle Lovett, used a pipe to help visualize the actions described in the German text. It was a rather sizable briar, although the text clearly refers to a clay pipe (and a Meerschaum could probably have worked by analogy)—but the cuteness of his pantomime couldn’t quite overcome the heaviness of the material. Indeed, mock-Bach was a killjoy in the first half. Che in amore he nemica (“He who has love has a mortal enemy”), another piece of disputed provenance, was an attractive enough moment in the “love and sex” section, especially in the realization of the constantly-moving harpsichord part by Michael Sponseller, but it sat awkwardly between Purcell’s “Cupid, the Slyest Roque Alive” and “Since the pox or the plague.”
Things really got going once we settled into the English texts—mostly Purcell, but also including an entertaining catch by Thomas Arne about a pregnant unmarried maid, resulting in the three possible fathers agreeing to share the blame of paternity until the girl finally decides who is responsible. In most cases the music and the texts had only a glancing relation to one another, the music being a vehicle for the humor of the text. Wakim made Purcell’s “I attempt from Love’s sickness to fly” enjoyable by throwing herself wholly into the fanciful melisma on “fly”, around which the rest of the song was arranged as is a humble setting to a gem. There’s also some possibly risqué word-painting to be found in “Cupid, the Slyest Roque Alive.” Throughout Kelley was reliably dramatic, using gesture and expression and the occasional dialect vowel (I think it was meant to sound Cockney, but I wouldn’t bet on it) to bring the words to life; the energy always rose as soon as he took stage. Blumberg and Wakim were content to rely more on their considerable vocal beauty. Blumberg had an appealingly goofy pomposity in his comic delivery, and a well-grounded, dark-colored voice that moved nimbly, especially in “Fin ch’al dal vino” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (no killjoy was Mozart, to be sure). Wakim used the high tessitura of Purcell’s “When I have often heard” to generate a charming girlishness that made the song’s concluding resolution to be as “false and inconstant” as any deceiving man sound gleeful rather than cynical.
The tone of the first half might best be conveyed when I tell you that it concluded with Purcell’s “Drunken Poet’s scene” from The Fairy Queen, with Aston Magna artistic director and violinist Dan Stepner taking the part of the drunken poet. Singing with a wooly tone and staggering around the stage, Stepner did a yeoman’s job playing the fool as the vocal trio buzzed and poked and pinched him, to general audience delight.
The increasingly rambunctious events of the first half made the first of two pieces in the second half (dedicated to coffee) a bit of a disappointment. “Le Caffé” by Nicholas Bernier (1665-1734) was a trio of paired recitatives and arias for tenor and small ensemble, an agreeable trifle but one that was a bit limp after the vigorous exertions of the first half. However, the final piece on the program, Bach’s Coffee Cantata, turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. Generally considered less-than-top-notch Bach, in this rather less ambitious repertoire it sounded masterful – the music has confidence, detail and shape, and provides a solid foundation for the rather silly dramatic scene it underpins. The young Liesgen (Wakim) is so besotted with coffee that she is willing to give up almost everything for it. Her father (Blumberg) can’t stand the stuff, and begins denying her privileges to convince her to quit. She remains steadfast until he says he will not find her a husband; she relents, but has made sure that in the end she’ll still get her beverage. The vocalists sang from memory, which freed them to act dramatically and to engage one another. The recitatives were sung in English, so the advance of plot was obvious without reference to texts. Kelley sang only the brief opening and closing narrations, and in the final chorus, but busied himself throughout as a kind of barista, brewing coffee on stage and courting Wakim with tiny espresso cups while avoiding Blumberg’s attention. There was no credit in the program for the modest staging; however, I should note it managed to incorporate cell-phones in a way that felt entirely natural and completely justified, and which even helped advance the understanding of the plot at the end. The entire piece was light and pleasurable, the music buoyant, the action moving rapidly. The instrumentalists reveled in the opportunities given to them: I note especially flutist Christopher Krueger’s fleet passage work in “Ei! Wie schmeckt der Coffee susse” (Wow, how sweet the coffee tastes) and Loretta O’Sullivan (cello) and Anne Trout (violone) rocking and swinging through the wide-gapped lines in “Madchen, die von harten Sinnen” (Girls with stubborn minds). There was even a moment of true joy in all of this music-hall comedy—when Wakim sang her aria asking her father to find her a husband, her effortless leaps conveyed a lighter-than-air ecstasy that transcended the modest material. I was disarmed and happy and relaxed at the end, Aston Magna succeeding where that grim drink at the Marriott had utterly failed.