Yesterday afternoon was frigidly cold in New York City, coinciding with 5 Borough Music Festival's collaboration with the Cultural Arts Series at St. Mary's RC Church in Long Island City presenting Quicksilver, an early music performance group, in a program titled "Stile Moderno: The New Science of Music In Italy." "New" is a relative term when speaking of music, of course, and in this case the reference was to the new baroque developments that displaced the renaissance style in Italian music early in the 17th century! On offer here were instrumental and vocal works by such as Dario Castello, Andrea Falconiero, Biagio Marini, Luigi Rossi, Giovanni Battista Fontana, Giovanni Bassano, Felice Sances, Tarquinio Merula, Antonio Bertali and — towering above all the others and the leading musical genius in the group — Claudio Monteverdi.
Quicksilver is made up of some the finest period instrument specialists who regularly perform in New York: violinists Robert Mealy and Julie Andrijeski, trombone/sackbut specialist Greg Ingles, cellist David Morris, Charles Weaver a virtuoso of the theorbo (archlute), and harpsichordist Avi Stein. They were joined for this program by two stellar sopranos, Nell Snaidas and Molly Quinn. And they really rocked! Selecting the name "Quicksilver" for this ensemble was entirely just, because they favor lively tempi, dramatically inflected readings, a wide dynamic range, and boundless enthusiasm reflected in their faces and gestures as they played.
It is most informative to hear the works of a stand-out genius in the context of his times. One can obtain a better appreciation of how extraordinary Monteverdi was by hearing his music in the context of his contemporaries, many of whom had deservedly high reputations during their careers but none of whose music has quite the same power and originality as Monteverdi's, consigning them to relative obscurity outside the ranks of committed baroque music enthusiasts.
On this program Monteverdi was represented by three madrigal/songs (two solo and a final duet). I think Monteverdi also insinuated himself rather blatantly in one other piece, Ballo detto Eccardo & Ciaccona by Merula. The ciaccona sounded to me suspiciously like an instrumental arrangement of Monteverdi's celebrated duet "Zefiro torna" from Book IX of the Madrigals. (I listened to Zefiro torna on my ipod during the subway trip back to Manhattan to confirm this…. yup.)
The other vocal pieces on the program were by Rossi and Sances, very much in the style of the Monteverdi pieces. Purely instrumental music included some pieces where the sackbut participated as an equal with the strings, and Mr. Ingles is quite the master of fast runs on the trombone that are startling to watch as well as to hear. All of this instrumental music was very well made, providing contrasting moods and textures, lyricism in the slower sections, and vigorous contrapuntal interplay in the faster ones.
In my headline, I use the word "refrigerated" advisedly. St. Mary's is a lovely old church, a perfect acoustical space for this kind of concert, but it also has a rather loud steam heating system, so to avoid distracting noise, the heat was switched off just prior to the concert and not switched back on until the end, and in the interim it gradually got colder and colder and colder. Most of us in the audience ended up wearing the winter coats with which we arrived. But that didn't put a damper on the event by any means, and I hope 5BMF comes back to this space in more clement weather. (It is a much better space for vocal music performance than the Brooklyn Conservatory ,where they held their last concert in a room that was too small comfortably to contain the sound of the piano and vocalists.)
So, another triumph for 5 Boroughs Music Festival, the exciting project of Jesse Blumberg (artistic director) and Donna Breitzer (executive director). Their next program, on March 11, is a 90th birthday salute to Astor Piazzolla at Hostos Center for the Arts in the Bronx, details available at their website (www.5bmf.org). I can't make it that night, but look forward to future presentations with eager anticipation.