Wednesday night the European early-music ensemble "L'Arpeggiata" settled in for a four-concert run in New York, performing its opening show at Zankel Hall, the underground small auditorium of Carnegie Hall. I use the phrase "opening show" advisedly because L'Arpeggiata, under the savvy leadership of Artistic Director Christina Pluhar, does not play "concerts" in the traditional sense but rather puts on a show, in which many of the individuals on-stage assume the role of "characters" in a free-swinging, improvisatory exposition that bears some resemblance to reality TV, although it's not edited! Definitely, it is in "real-time" and improvisation is the key.
At the beating heart of "L'Arpeggiata" is Christina Pluhar. I've described her in the past as the "Goddess of Early Music" and nothing I heard Wednesday night would shake me from that description. This great musician knows how to meld a group of talented virtuosi into a refined instrument for the translation of musical ideas from the page into vivid life. Seek out all of her recordings and you will never be disappointed, but as the NY Times critic reviewing this performance in today's newspaper, Allan Kozinn, justly observes, the live experience far transcends the recordings.
The recordings are carefully constructed concerts, and one has to believe that the most effective of the improvisatory efforts intermingled with interpretations of written-out music are edited together for the best effect. But the live programs incorporate genuine interpretation, surprises for the musicians as well as the audience, and a live spirit of experimentation. As originally booked for Zankel, this program was to provide a live equivalent of Pluhar's most recent release, "Los Pajaros Perdidos," a program of Latin American folk and classical music performed on real and copied 17th century instruments of the type that were the European ancestors of many instruments now deemed quintessentially Latin American. But an announcement prior to the concert observed that the printed program was merely a suggestion, and that in fact the selections and order would be varied.
And they most spectacularly were, departing from the printed program by about the third or fourth number and only intermittently intercepting it thereafter. Part of this was due to the spectacular participation of Gianluigi Trovesi, a clarinet master whose jazz-inflected improvisations spiced the entire program, and whose charming expressions created a somewhat comic character to interact with Lucilla Galeazzi, the multi-talented song-writer and vocalist with whom he flirted through much of the program. Trovesi's participation, perhaps not anticipated when this concert was scheduled more than a year ago, meant that the selections from the recording "Los Pajaros Perdidos" would be mixed with selections from other recordings and previously unrecorded material, as Trovesi's art of improvisation introduced a vital new element.
"L'Arpeggiata", as the name implies, is essentially a plucking-based ensemble, with Pluhar anchoring the group with her theorbo, in participation with guitar, lute, various harp-like instruments, double bass (mainly plucked) and harpsichord. Pluhar varies the texture at times with percussion and lyrical instruments. On this occasion there was percussion typical of Latin folk and pop music, as well as the psaltery. One of the regular participants, the spectacular cornetto virtuoso Doron Sherwin, was much in evidence and definitely a "character" in the show, at times in eompetition with Trovesi.
But the main characters, apart from the instrumentalists, are the singers. I first attended a "L'Arpeggiata" show in order to hear the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky. He was not with "L'Arpeggiata" for this tour, and I was wondering whether they would be less effective without him, but not to worry: Pluhar knows her singers and she put together a stellar grouping here, mainly participants in her recent recordings. Three were identified only as vocalists, undoubtedly because of their versatility and range, defying traditional classification. In addition to the splendid Lucilla Galeazzi, the other "unclassified" vocalists were Luciana Mancini and Vincenzo Capezzuto. Raquel Andueza, a stunning soprano, rounded out the cast. All four of these vocal soloists made extraordinary contributions as soloists, and formed a mini-chorus, almost as part of the percussion group, at times.
To me the major discovery was Mr. Capezzuto, whose biography identifies him as a dancer and singer. He sings on two of Ms. Pluhar's recordings – "Via Crucis" and the recent "Los Pajaros" – but somehow the recordings had not impressed him in my memory. And I could hear why on Wednesday night: he has a truly distinctive unclassifiable voice – somewhere in the alto range but occasionally ranging lower or higher – that doesn't record as well as it sounds live and in person, supplemented by his natural dancer's grace in movement and the most contagious smile one could imagine. I have both of these recordings on my iPod and while traveling yesterday listened to some of Mr. Capezzuto's recordings again, which confirmed my impression. He is very much worth hearing in the recordings, but much more effective live when accompanied by gesture, facial expressions, and graceful rhythmic motion.
Indeed, this was my impression of all the singers, each of whom brought something special to the occasion. I had the feeling that the audience at first was a bit unsure of what was going on. People came expecting a concert as advertised, and instead they got a show combining elements of early music (was that Monteverdi's madrigal "Zefiro torna" from the IXth Book providing the basis for a jazzy riff by Trovesi??) with elements of contemporary Latin pop and even Latin and Italian sacred and secular 17th century work, all layered with instrumental arrangements and instrumental and vocal improvisations, in an order not followed in the printed program? (Mr. Capezzuto's first solo, "Stu criato," was absolutely breathtaking, and can be found at the end of the "Via Crucis" recording.) One quickly gave up trying to follow the program and just surrendered to the marvelous sequence of musical adventures that is a Pluhar "show."
Unfortunately, travel commitments and scheduling conflicts meant this would be my only Pluhar concert during L'Arpeggiata's brief residence at Zankel this week. But I hope for many more opportunities in the future.