Monday, October 29, 2007

"Love and War" this Sunday at 5!

The upcoming Ars Lyrica program contains some of my favorite music ever: Monteverdi's "Madrigals of Love and War." If you've never heard these remarkable works, you're in for a real treat. And if you're junkies like me, you need at least one good Monteverdian "fix" per year. We're happy to provide: this coming Sunday, Nov 4 at 5 pm at Zilkha Hall. For tickets: 713 315-2525.

For those who like to read them in advance, here are the notes for this program. Hope to see you on Sunday afternoon!

Over the course of an exceptionally long career, Claudio Monteverdi composed some 250 madrigals that range from the comic and satirical to the plangent and war-like. This large and diverse repertory, published in some nine books between 1587 and 1651, is the best witness to the composer’s idiosyncratic and constantly evolving ideas about musical composition. Unusually for their time, these madrigals served as neither domestic music nor polyphonic showpieces but instead as highly expressive, supple works in the modern (mixed) style for professional singers.

In his madrigals Monteverdi simultaneously paid tribute to and gave new life to a genre whose day had clearly passed. The polyphonic part song par excellence of the previous century, the madrigal encompassed for Monteverdi and his contemporaries everything from extended scena in the new theatrical style to relatively short works that move with astonishing speed from one emotion to another. An intense focus on the words was paramount, oftentimes to the detriment of good counterpoint: the theorist Artusi’s complaint about one such piece caused Monteverdi to mount one of the first public relations campaigns in music history. From this dispute came the famous distinction, crucial for the early Baroque, between the prima prattica (the contrapuntal style of the 16th century) and the seconda prattica (the melody-dominated style of the early 17th century).

From Monteverdi’s Madrigals of Love and War (Book VIII, 1638) our program incorporates eight works: seven concerted madrigals plus an introductory sinfonia for instruments alone. The madrigali guerrieri (madrigals of war) are especially noteworthy for their striking and wholly avant-garde treatment of the idea of armed combat. Searching for a modern musical equivalent to the ancient Greek warlike genus in music, Monteverdi invented the stile concitato (the “excited style”), in which instruments and singers simulate the sound of war by repeated hammering of the same notes. Stark contrasts with sections in either the “languid” or the “temperate” styles (following Monteverdi’s own classifications of the human passions) remind us of the sometimes perilously short path from love to war. As the composer himself explained: “When [the poetry] speaks about war, it must imitate war; when it speaks about peace, imitate peace; about death, death, and so on, afterwards the transformations and imitations will happen in a brief moment.”

We open and close with two Monteverdi settings of Petrarch sonnets, both of which require a full complement of singers, continuo players and two violins. The triptych known as the Lamento della Ninfa, set to verses by Ottavio Rinuccini, begins and ends with a trio that provides essential commentary on the central dramatic lament, whose ostinato pattern of just four notes (the classic descending “lamento bass”) supports a plaintive melody, one that Monteverdi instructs must be sung not “to the time of the hand” (in strict meter) but instead “in time with the emotions of the mind.” In both Altri canti di Marte and Hor ch’el ciel Monteverdi’s characteristic war-like sounds — the fast repeated notes of the stile concitato — are hard to miss, but there are passage of striking beauty in both as well. The remaining three Monteverdi works on this program, though scored for smaller forces, are just as unpredictable and expressive as their larger neighbors.

Like Monteverdi, Purcell’s musical and dramatic instincts far outclassed those of his contemporaries. His solo songs have charm, elegance, humor, and a certain earthiness about them—qualities that have made these little gems eternally popular with both young and experienced singers. Purcell and his (mostly unknown) poets found the twin topics of love and war just as irresistible as had their Italian forebears, though what they did with those ideas was uniquely English. Most of the Purcell songs on tonight’s program are individual works, but at least two are from larger stage works. The most familiar of the lot, “I attempt from Love’s sickness to fly,” comes from the end of the third act of Indian Queen, as a chorus of spirits descend to warn mere mortals of the many dangers of love.

The violinist and composer Salamone Rossi, whose time at the Mantuan court overlapped with Monteverdi’s tenure there, was among the first composers to write sonatas in the soloistic style of the early Baroque. His Venetian contemporary Biagio Marini was a virtuoso violinist and composer of great inventiveness. Dario Castello was active in Venice in the first half of the seventeenth century as a wind player. His two collections of sonatas for either violin, recorder, or cornetto show the influence of the new style of vocal writing on instrumental composition; these are highly rhapsodic, almost free-form compositions with occasional countrapuntal episodes.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

So what's "Wired Bach" about?

This weekend's "Wired Bach" Ars Lyrica program is an all-Bach affair, with lots of wires (two harpsichords and five string instruments) plus some highly caffienated music. You won't need to stop at Starbuck's before this one!

Concert info: Saturday, Oct 6 at 7:30 pm
at St Philip Presbyterian Church (San Felipe just outside West Loop 610)
Tickets available at the door only.

Here are some notes on the program by yours truly:

J. S. Bach wrote his first keyboard concertos between 1717 and 1723 during his service to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. Concerti for multiple harpsichords followed during Bach’s long tenure in Leipzig, perhaps as a means of sharing the spotlight occasionally with his gifted sons, all of whom eventually entered the family trade (Bach would surely have played one of the solo parts himself). Most of these concerti, including those for solo harpsichord, are transcriptions of earlier works for other instruments, and yet that doesn’t render them somehow less idiomatic than other keyboard concerti. Bach had no trouble transferring musical ideas from one medium to another, and some of his transcriptions are arguably more successful pieces than their originals. Of the two double-harpsichord concerti on tonight’s program, the first (BWV 1060) will be familiar to some as a violin and oboe concerto.

Bach’s concerti usually follow the Vivaldian model, with two fast movements surrounding a highly embellished slow movement. In the C-minor double concerto the strings are integral to the articulation of the ritornello (refrain) passages in the outer movements and they accompany the extensive solo writing in a variety of ways. The C-major concerto, on the other hand, had no string parts in its earliest incarnation. Though a late addition, the strings are welcome one, for they help to reinforce important cadential points and add their distinctive warm color to a what is otherwise a fairly wiry texture.

The two violin sonatas on this program are formally similar but they reflect two different ways of treating the harpsichord during the Baroque. The G major Sonata (BWV 1021) for violin and continuo has just two lines of music: a melody line for violin and a bass line with figures that indicate the harmonies to be realized above it. The A major Sonata (BWV 1015), on the other hand, is for violin and harpsichord obbligato, meaning that the right-hand part is fully realized by the composer. It is one of a set of six such pieces that are among the first to treat the keyboard in this more modern manner.

Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello pay homage to the traditional Baroque dance suite (allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue) while incorporating more modern dances (minuets, bourrées) and imposing introductory preludes as well. The second of these begins with a marvelously ruminative exploration of the dark D minor tonality; its dances are by turns pensive and perky. Like its sister suites, it demonstrates with particular eloquence how Bach (to quote a late 18th-century writer) managed to “make melody out of harmony, and harmony out of melody.”

Much of this music was first heard on programs of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, an ensemble made up primarily of university students, whose direction Bach assumed in the mid 1720s. Performances by this ensemble took place at a coffee-house and occasionally at an outdoor garden owned and operated by Gottfried Zimmermann. Their convivial and highly caffienated atmosphere was conducive to informal programs that freely mixed instrumental and vocal chamber works: Bach’s famous “Coffee Cantata” was intended for just such an occasion. The instrumental music Bach wrote for such programs is similarly “wired”: it’s unambiguously cheerful, with busy contrapuntal lines going seemingly every which way but always with a final goal in mind.