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Preview: Henry Purcell’s Indian Queen

February 21, 2011

Early Edition enthusiastically invited Theodore Deacon to share some thoughts on this week’s production of Henry Purcell’s Indian Queen, a collaboration of Seattle Early Dance, Baroque Northwest and Early Music Guild.  Performances are on February 25, 26, and 27 at 7:30 PM at the Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center.  More information about the performances and online ticket purchasing can be found here.

“I believe you mean ‘The FAIRY Queen,’ no?” My coffee companion was adamant that I was mistaken. “Or ‘King Arthur.’ Some sort of opera or hemi-demi-semi-opera thing, right?”

Well, not quite. I have been working on Henry Purcell’s ‘The INDIAN Queen’ for nearly a year now. My dear friend and choreographer Anna Mansbridge first wanted to do the composer’s “Fairy Queen,” but after mulling it over, I convinced her the length and size of the whole package would be a bit beyond our means at this time. You would have to mount a production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to really do it well (making for, at least, a five hour extravaganza). And then there’s the large cast and orchestra. Not an easy fit for the quaint chapel environment of the Good Shepherd Center. “King Arthur,” though more of a semi-opera, has a clunky plot and demands a chunky orchestra.

So, “Indian Queen” it is. Yet, beside its two hit tunes, “I attempt from love’s sickness” and “We the spirits of the air,” few (like my coffee cohort) know the entire score or have seen a full production. Not surprising. “IQ” – as we charmingly refer to it – was Purcell’s incidental music to a Restoration Tragedy by John Dryden, and if you know anything about the celebrated Mr. Dryden or the plays he produced you know there are problems to face. Like most Restoration tragedies, IQ has an immense cast of characters and a high body count by the time the curtain falls. And then there are those interminable ranks of “heroic couplets” that Mr. D was all too fond of. (Ta da, ta da, ta da, ta da, ta da – rhyme: repeat, ad nauseam.) We are looking at serious hours of silly plot and poetic tedium to get to the musical gold.

The solution? Bag Dryden and start from scratch. Well, not exactly scratch. I took the plot mostly from the last act of Rameau’s delightful opera “Les Indes Galantes” where the theme of “who knows best the ways of love” is endearingly batted about by a slightly goofy pair of Spaniard and Frenchman. The prize? The noble and beautiful Aztec Queen Zempoalla who must choose wisely to ward off war.

And to whom will she grant her affections? You’ll have to come to the show and find out. You will be rewarded with an exquisite array of Purcellean songs, rousing trumpet tunes and elegant courtly dances. But then you will also will have to put up with my faux-Restoration couplets, though far far fewer than the prolix Dryden … and there’s a happy ending (and negligible body count) this time.

Bach Cantata at St. Stephen’s to feature SATB Male Vocal Soloists & Period Instruments

February 19, 2011

J.S. Bach

Sunday, March 6, 2011     Cantata Preview at 4:30 PM  | Choral Evensong & Bach Cantata 5 PM

“Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten” BWV 93 at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church – 4805 NE 45th Street, Seattle (Laurelhurst)

Early Edition asked Leslie Martin to share with our readers more information about his Choral Evensong and Bach Cantata projects he directs at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.  The next performance in this series is happening soon, on Sunday, March 6.

 

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A few years ago I almost won the lottery – that is, I chose 5 out of 6 numbers correctly.  That got me thinking – what would I do with my $4 million if had correctly chosen that 6th number?  The immediate answer was, lots and lots of Bach cantatas!

These works were the musical entrée each Sunday in Bach’s Leipzig, and represented the core of his musical output during his first years there from 1723. To contemplate the rapidity of their weekly composition, the quality with which they are crafted, and above all, their sheer beauty, will forever boggle the mind of every mortal musician.

It can certainly be said that all of Bach’s music is a testament to his unsurpassed inventiveness, but in many ways I find that he is perhaps at his creative best when he is performing a marriage between text and music – whether in his monolithic Passion settings, or his weekly cantatas.  Though smaller in scale, the cantatas still have everything found in his larger choral works – a “story line” that evolves through inspiring choruses, soaring arias and duets, dramatic recitatives, and all tied up in a neat bow with a congregational chorale at the end – all of this in a condensed, twenty to thirty-minute package.

For the hearer they are inspiring works of beauty, and for those looking for the thrill of musical discovery, Bach’s cantatas are a veritable treasure chest. Each time I open the score and peek under the hood to see what makes that particular cantata run, I’m always rewarded with new insights through Bach’s vast palate of word painting, pictorial or numerological symbolism, and architectural or thematic cohesiveness within – and even between movements.  I come away thinking, “Ach, mein Gott!”, these are the crown jewels of the baroque sacred choral tradition.

Unfortunately, we have largely excluded these twenty-minute masterpieces from the common musical fare in today’s churches, and they have sadly become one of the best-kept secrets of sacred choral literature. However, it is our intent at St. Stephen’s not only to help people to rediscover the depth and beauty of these works, but also to provide a place to hear the sacred cantata again in its liturgical context, supported by hymnody, psalmody, and scriptural readings that further illuminate the meaning of Bach’s music.

It’s always an exhilarating experience to bring these magnificent works to life through performances with period instruments, and in the original German, where the nuance of Bach’s word painting can be experienced. But what will make the March 6, 2011 performance of “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten” so unique? Following Bach’s own practice in Leipzig – and, perhaps for the first time in the Northwest – this performance will feature only male vocal soloists: Benjamin Richardson, boy soprano; Joshua Haberman, countertenor; Ross Hauck, tenor; Thomas Thompson, bass-baritone.

Can it be true – a FREE Bach and Händel Series with period instruments?

It is at St. Stephen’s. You might even say it’s almost like winning the lottery.

– Leslie Martin

St. Stephen’s welcomes experienced singers to participate in the Evensong Chorus. For more information, please contact Leslie Martin, Director of Music at Les@ststephens-seattle.org, or at (206) 522-7144 ext 307. For directions, or to hear sound files of previous cantata performances, please visit the Evensong page at www.ststephens-seattle.org.

Leslie Martin is Director of Music at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, and adjunct professor of organ, harpsichord and keyboard harmony at Seattle Pacific University.

 

Handel’s Semele this Saturday

February 2, 2011

Mention EMG and save! $10 tickets to Pacific Lutheran University’s production of Handel’s baroque opera Semele this Saturday, 7:30PM at Trinity Parish Church.

Concert Preview: Early Music Discovery Series: Merry It Is!

February 1, 2011

Shulamit Kleinerman, director of Seattle Historical Arts for Kids, tells Early Edition about a project she’s been working on and will present this Sunday, February 6 at 1PM at Downstairs at Town Hall.  Tickets and more information about the concert can be found on the Early Music Guild website.

Hamlet, dress rehearsal

Mix together a baker’s dozen talented kids, a team of seamstresses, several stalwart early-instrument pros, and a bunch of tunes from the 13th-18th centuries, and shake vigorously. Our concoction is almost ready, and we hope you’ll come enjoy it with us on Sunday: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and American Colonial song and dance brought to life by children.

With a kid-driven narrative script, gorgeous historical costumes, and the catchiest medieval, renaissance, and baroque songs and dances I know, our “concert-play”—as one of the kids termed it—has been a delight to work on. With kids as spirited and creative as these, I get to be half taskmistress and half co-conspirator. Just when I think I might be exhausting them, they break into some top-forty tune from the fourteenth century, singing together for the fun of it, without any adults. It does the heart good to hear them.

The show brings together young performers who have devoted many hours of their lives to music, dance, and theater, along with other eager participants who are trying this sort of thing for the first time. Some of these kids have been coming to Seattle Historical Arts classes for as long as five years, and others are new with this project. They range from six- and seven-year-olds with a few lines and a few simple dances to a thirteen-year-old Historical Arts veteran who plays a mean vielle and renaissance fiddle in the show. All the kids unite in thirteen songs of celebration, humor, and wonder.

Getting into costume

Many of these kids sang (and in that one case, played) on our CD, Merry it is!, which will be available at the show. I keep hearing from people whose child or grandchild received a copy as a gift and can’t stop singing and dancing along. If our concert makes you or your child feel the same way, you can also pick up a copy of the Merry it is! songbook—being released on Sunday for the first time, and perfect for elementary school teachers or anyone who wants to follow along at home.

Just in case I need to say so to anyone who’s reading this: Sunday’s concert is going to be ever so much cooler than the Superbowl.

 

The Voice of the viola da gamba

January 25, 2011

Early Edition invited viola da gambist Lee Inman to contribute to the blog for the upcoming viol-centric performances presented by Early Music Guild this season.  Hear the Portland Viol Consort on Tuesday, February 1 at 7:30PM at Trinity Parish Church.  Hear Paolo Pandolfo and Thomas Boysen on Saturday, March 5 at 8PM at Town Hall.  Whether you haven’t heard a viol played in person before, or you’re already a passionate follower of this wonderful instrument, we hope to see you at these memorable performances!

What is there about the voice of the viola da gamba that has mesmerized so many people, often to the extent that they take up the instrument themselves?  I can’t answer that question precisely, except to say that the sound of the viol grabbed my ear over 40 years ago, and has never let it go.

It may not be apparent to viol aficionados today that expressing interest in the late 1960’s in something as esoteric as the viol, or in historical performance practice in general, was considered tantamount to becoming a card-carrying member of the lunatic fringe.  Music schools then tended to question the motives – and sanity – of any student expressing an interest in any music outside the classical canon of the time. Since then, attitudes have changed. The sound of the viol is now part of the musical mainstream, and leading conservatories all over the world are now prepared to offer viol performance degrees.

The reason for that evolution is clear, at least to me.  The human singing voice has always been the most highly-cherished and emotionally-satisfying instrument, matchless in refinement and in expressiveness. Historically, the viol was highly-prized for its supreme ability to mimic a singer’s flexibility and sensitivity. Both the voice of the viola da gamba and the voice of the singer still have the same effect, and the same appeal, in the twenty-first century, too.

Seattle is fortunate to have a noted viol virtuoso and teacher, Margriet Tindemans, resident in the city. In fact, the entire west coast has evolved gradually into a near-paradise for professional and amateur viol players.  Indeed, the San Francisco bay area is now bursting with viol expertise, and Portland and Eugene are also home to fine players, eager to find an audience.

Yet, even with that wealth of talent in our ‘neighborhood’, audiences rarely have the opportunity to hear viols in consort.  That’s unfortunate, because if one viol is engaging, an ensemble four or five can be completely charming.  Seattle will have one of those rare opportunities on February 1, when the Portland Viol Consort performs John Dowland’s complete “Lachrimae” cycle as part of the Seattle Early Music Guild’s First Tuesdays series.

The “Lachrimae” collection of Pavans, Galliards and Almans presents a bit of a quandary to modern listeners.  For one thing, the overall mood of the cycle is somewhat monochromatic. Musicians often go to great lengths to build an appealing mix of emotional impressions into a concert program, but the theme (melancholy) of the “Lachrimae” set doesn’t easily support that approach.  For another, Dowland’s quasi-programmatic structure for varying his thematic material has left us with little riddles that even expert musicological research has yet to fully answer.

On the other hand, “Lachrimae” offers modern audiences an opportunity to visit and to reflect deeply on a culture and sensibility that may seem foreign to us.  “Lachrimae’s” instrumentation – viols and lute – also works subtly on our perceptions, and requests our full attention to appreciate those subtleties.  Understanding of “Lachrimae” may come only after one puts aside the enigmas and mysteries that enshroud Dowland’s masterwork, then simply accepts its message at face value and savors its uniquely restrained beauty.

Paolo Pandolfo, photo by Evy Ottermans

After “Lachrimae” in February, we’ll just have time to catch our breath when, on March 5, Paolo Pandolfo arrives to perform what promises to be a dazzling program of pieces for bass viola da gamba, accompanied by his long-time colleague, Thomas Boysen on theorbo.  Pandolfo’s playing is invariably brilliant, his interpretations creative and insightful.  What has particularly impressed me is how relaxed he always seems with the instrument, even as he flawlessly navigates the most technically complex pieces.  He draws on years of musical experience and study to prepare his programs, and it’s a joy to witness his passion for the viol and its literature.  Pandolfo’s appearance in Seattle must surely belong on the “do not miss” list of anyone who’s ever fallen under the spell of the viola da gamba.

Review: Seattle Baroque Orchestra – Vivaldi: La Folia

January 7, 2011

Read the review of last weekend’s concert, written by Bernard Jacobson.

L’Amfiparnaso: Found in Translation, part 1

December 29, 2010

by Theodore Deacon, producer of EMG’s upcoming baroque opera production: A Day on the Town, A Night in Hell. Click here for more information about performances and to buy tickets.

Commedia dell'arte actors on stage

When it comes to early opera productions I am anything but a purist. Of course I have done my share of historically informed reproductions with all the periwigs, panniers and pantaloons one would expect. These sorts of productions should be the core of our work as historians and musicologists. But I am also a creature of progressive theatre and unashamedly proud of the occasional “diversions” I have taken with some EMG shows– remember the motorcycle in Monteverdi’s Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (2002) or the Fascist thugs and phone sex in L’incoronazione di Poppea (2007)?

Yet there is one area of early music where “purity” is sacrosanct with me: the score itself. I expect any production I am working on to use the best edition with the finest up-to-date scholarship. The band needs to play on period instruments and the singers must be well-coached in stylistic niceties. Oh, and yes, original language please! A Lully opera in anything other than elegant Quinalt-ian French would sound simply ludicrous, don’t you agree?

So you can understand the academic mental gymnastics I went through when Roger Downey and Arne Zaslove, the two men responsible for conceiving a viable production of our madrigal comedy production, strongly came down on the side of doing L’Amfiparnaso in English translation! I thought they were crazy. Madrigals are tough enough to sing and understand in their mother tongues, especially in the dizzying dialects, bawdy puns and innuendoes that are its elements of style. But Downey and Zaslove’s arguments were sound: comedy is best appreciated when done in the language of the attending audience and is even more essential in the commedia dell’arte tradition of pitching its humor directly into your lap. So, tenuously, I agreed.

Little did I know then that  several months later circumstances would land the execution of the translation in MY lap!  At first, I blenched. What a task! Not only would I need to match the Italian rhythms to the unique patter of singable English, but also find equivalents to the intricate (and frequently naughty) word play that runs through the disparate dialects. Then there was the task of tying together the VERY loosely arranged vignettes that made up the – for want of a better word – “plot.”

Well, I’ve often rushed in madly where the better angels of my practical nature feared to tread. So I dove right in. What I didn’t expect was how delightful I found the challenges facing me and how fulfilling, intellectually and theatrically, the results would turn out to be. Read my further blogs to see how I found my way through this thorny, madcap maze of crazy comedy and good dirty fun.