Comparing and Contrasting: From “Faux” Ancient Music to Real Ancient Music

I attended two concerts this past weekend presenting interesting contrasts between the modern setting of an ancient text and real "ancient music."  On Saturday night, I attended the New York Philharmonic's subscription concert, on which Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, a "scenic cantata" written in the 1930s setting verses by monks from a medieval monastary in Bavaria, was the principal work.  On Sunday night, I attended Musica Nuova's presentation at Le Poisson Rouge of a "pastiche" opera made up of music by Claudio Monteverdi dating mostly from the early part of the 17th century.  Each in its own way made a strong impression, but I rather enjoyed the Monteverdi more than the Orff.

The Philharmonic's guest conductor last week was Raphael Fruhbeck de Burgos, who has been a frequent visitor in recent years but, surprisingly, had not previously been asked to conduct Carmina Burana, which is one of his specialties.  (I grew up with his EMI recording from the 1960s, which is still cited by critics as one of the best recordings of this piece.)  The NYP last played Carmina Burana in 1995, led by Kurt Masur.  The piece was controversial in Germany when Carl Orff first presented it in the 1930s, because of the open sexuality of some of the verses, which Nazi censors considered to verge on obscenity.  But the piece proved popular with audiences, and after World War II it began to gain admirers outside of Germany with the first major recordings.  This is a work that really needs good sound to make its proper effect, and Fruhbeck de Burgos's recording came along at just the right time – when stereo recording techniques and playback technology had developed sufficiently so that this piece, with its large chorus, dramatic vocal soloists and big percussion section, could be properly heard.  (The soprano solo goes so high that only a really fine audio system can reproduce it without terrible strain.)  Of course, it's even better now in a good digital recording, where the occasional congestion of analogue recordings in the big choral moments can be avoided by skillful technology.

All that said, it is even more overwhelming heard live in concert, with no technology compression or distortion to get in the way of the full sonic experience, and where the spontaneity of a live performance generates additional excitement.  The Philharmonic imported a Spanish chorus together with their Spanish guest conductor, Orfeon Pamplones – one suspects at least in part because the first half of the program, excerpts from an uncompleted cantata by Manuel de Falla, "Atlantida", involved an NYP premiere sung in Spanish — but this chorus also sings Carmina Burana a lot – so much that they have it memorized.

Excellent vocal soloists for Carmina Burana were Erin Morley (soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor – the roasting Swan on the spit), and Jacques Imbrailo.  For the few segments requiring children's voices, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus joined in with great spirit.  I found the interpretation very much like that old recording from the 1960s, with one startling exception: there is a recurring passage in #22, Tempus est iocundum, where the chorus starts slowly and accelerates to a faster tempo, but Fruhbeck de Burgos made a quick tempo change each time without the accelerando… It startled me at first and when I got home I checked the score.  My memory coincided with the score, so I wonder what caused him to depart from the clear instructions of the composer?

The de Falla piece was worth hearing – once – but I thought it was not among this composer's great inspirations.  The text is an odd compendium of incidents from the life of Christopher Columbus, the lost continent of Atlantis, and ancient mythology, and as presented in excerpts with terse English projected supertitles it made little sense.  The music foreswore the audience-friendly folkloric approach of De Falla's great ballet scores, such as Le Tricorne and L'Amor Brujo, instead presenting lots of loud chords, successions of quarter notes, lack of rhythmic variety, and no memorable tunes.  Boring.  Too bad.  They were all trying very hard down on the stage, but they didn't have such great material with which to work…

Sunday night was a different story altogether.  Instead of a mammoth orchestra and chorus, we had the fine instrumental ensemble of Musica Nuova – violin, viola da gamba, theorbo, harpsichord, organ, lute, recorder….  In other words, an attempt to create the instrumental sound-world of Monteverdi, with a cast of excellent early music specialists.  The operatic pastiche centered around Il Ballo delle Ingrate, a large set-piece published as part of Monteverdi's Eighth Book of Madrigals.  The creative team of Grant Herreid (Musica Nuova's musical director), Lawrence Rosenwald (dialogue writer) and Dorothy Olsson (choreographer) selected additional works by Monteverdi from a variety of sources, including his operas, to create a "new" dramatic work in which to showcase Il Ballo.  The premise was that Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, has three daughters he would like to marry off, the problem being that the oldest has foresworn marriage and that custom precludes the younger sisters marrying before their elder sister.  Three suitors are hard at work – the suitor for oldest sister has the hardest job, because she is absolutely adamant – as her younger siblings plead for her to be reasonable so they can marry their boyfriends.  Ultimately, she decides to become a nun in order to escape the pressure to marry. 

As portrayed by Michele Kennedy, Lidia, the oldest daughter, is a bit of a mystery until rather late in the show when she performs the famous "Lamento della Ninfa," one of the great laments of Baroque music, with the musical commentary of the three male suitors, explaining how truly miserable has been her experience of men.  Indeed, I found "Lamento della Ninfa" rather than Il Ballo, to be the highlight of the evening and most of the audience agreed with me, bursting into applause at the end of this number.  (Up to that point, there had not been applause to interrupt the continuous flow of the proceedings, but the performance of this number, and the music itself, were so striking, so very overwhelming, that the audience had to interrupt.)

The three suitors were well portrayed by Steven Hrycelak (bass), John Carlo Pierce (tenor), and Nicholas Tamagna (countertenor).  The versatile Peter Becker portrayed both Ferdinand and Pluto, God of the Underworld.  (You had to be there…)  The other sisters were sung by Catherine Leech and Elizabeth Merrill, and there was a fine supporting cast in other roles as singers and dancers, including the Anime Ingrate of Il Ballo: Lucy Fitz Gibbon, Silvie Jensen, Amanda Keil, Christine Bancroft, Seanna Burke, Sarah Gallogly, and Michele Solares.  The fine instrumental ensemble included Leah Nelson and Aaron Brown (violin), Rosamond Morley and Michael Rigsby (viola da gamba), Daniel Swenberg and Charlie Weaver (theorbo), Jeffrey Grossman (harpsichord, organ), and music director Grant Herreid (playing lute, viola da gamba, and recorder). 

The entire production was excellent, made even more so by the intimate setting of Le Poisson Rouge, which has emerged in the past few seasons as one of New York City's premiere spots for interesting productions of "classical" music interspersed with a wide variety of other kinds of artistic endeavors. Walker Lewis directed the stage movement according to the choreography conceived by Dorothy Olsson.  The rest of the creative and operational team included Elizabeth Coco (lighting designer), Grace Trimble (costume designer), Danielle Thomson (stage manager).  Amanda Keil is the artistic director and overall producer of the event. 

This was my first enounter with Musica Nuova, a relatively new organization which has been putting on a handful of productions each season in a variety of locations around town.  I was impressed enough to sign up on their website for notification of future events, and to send a small donation in support of their work.  I look forward to hearing them again.

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