Climbing to the high granite overlook of the “Deer’s Leap” trail in Killington, Vermont, I spied a solitary bird, a Dark-eyed Junco, singing from the top of a pine tree. Looking through binoculars, I could see how the Junco threw back his tiny head and launched his entire slender body into every note he sang, delivering his song into the surrounding sunshine and vastness with every ounce of his vocal power.
The exuberance with which this tiny bird belted out his song reminded me of the joy in hearing the solitary violin of Milos Valent, artistic leader of the Early Music ensemble Solamenti Naturali (“Solamenti”) in their concert as part of the 36th annual Boston Early Music Festival (“BEMF”; www.bemf.org) that celebrated performances throughout Boston from June 11-18, 2017.
Like the Junco singing fervently from his pine tree, Valent weaved his way through the capacity audience at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall playing the joyful melody from a George Philip Telemann (1681-1767) “Polonaise” while his entire body danced and swayed to every soar and upturned phrase.
He eventually joined the other members of Solamenti on stage for an inspired program called “Musica Globus”: a creative stew of Slovak, German, Turkish and Hungarian Baroque songs tethered to a selection of Telemann compositions. The magic produced from this creative program was thrilling to hear. Within the resonant airy confines of Jordan Hall, each piece was delivered in a rush of sparkling instrumental colors, textures and entwined dancing melodies.
The opening “Polska” selections of the program delivered everything from robust gigs to glowing ballads, anchored by Juraj Kovac’s violoncello (a period instrument that was held between Kovac’s swaying legs) as he crisply marched along to Tibor Nagy’s flowing double bass lines. The “Westy” section contained several Scottish Highland songs. “A New Hornpipe” highlighted the deep drone of Peter Vrbincik’s viola while “Scottish Humor” flowed with comic interjections passed between low to high strings with quicksilver attack and decay – finished with Jan Rokyta’s sprite recorder runs that dashed in and out of the colorful fray.
Rokyta utilized recorders of different sizes as well as indigenous wind instruments, like the duduk (an ancient double reed flute originating in Armenia and Eastern Europe) and an early version of a clarinet, to create a maelstrom of woodwind sounds and colors. The duduk’s piercing reedy calls (along with the group’s hand claps) ignited the swirling “Barbaro” dances that pranced with light earthy delight, spurred on by violinist Dagmar Valentova’s deep vocals that rang throughout the hall with fiery passion.
Rokyta also played another instrument rarely heard in concert: the cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer indigenous to Eastern Europe. Rokyta plied the strings of the cimbalom with velvet concentration that produced everything from a sweep of flowing sounds (like a spilling waterfall) to an isolated wisp of effervescence. The cimbalom accompanied Valent’s violin on a bold and comic Hungarian march and then buoyantly partnered with Soma Dinyes’ flowing harpsichord to propel the delicacy of a bright Telemann frolic.
The concert concluded with “Anatolia,” a section where Turkish dances and drama crackled around the dazzling craft of percussionist Baykal Dogan. Dogan was a churning engine throughout the performance, moving from tambourines to different indigenous drums with the ability to play delicately or with volcanic power (as the dance required). His finale, during a feisty Turkish dance, sent him into a flurry of drum activity. At one point, he juggled his hand-drum in and out of his legs to create a cyclical pattern of resonant calls and powerful deep bellows.
The vitality of Dogan’s drum solo epitomized the artistic creativity and consummate musicianship that flowed through out this evening’s sparkling BEMF concert – proving once again that Early Music’s acoustic glory remains as fresh and vital today as it did several hundred years ago.
Acoustic splendor was also heard in abundance in the BEMF’s fully staged production of Andre Campra’s (1660-1744) opera, Le Carnival de Venise, (“Le Carnival”) the centerpiece of BEMF’s full week of festivities. The production brought together a number of outstanding BEMF musicians and vocalists who have, in the recent past, contributed their collective talents to create BEMF recordings of superb sound quality and stunning beauty. One of my favorites is the joint production by BEMF and Radio Bremen in their 2015 recording of Agostino Steffani’s (1653-1728) opera, Niobe Regina Di Tebe [Erato/Warner Classics CD].
This recording is outstanding for many reasons, including its tactile, up front perspective on all its acoustic and vocal glory. This includes hearing intently the spidery strums of a theorbo; the swirling sounds of strings and horns partnered with a leaping harpsichord; the huge bass drum hits that ignite from the rear of the airy soundstage and, most dynamically, the gorgeous vocals of world-class opera singers as they sing Luigi Orlandi’s libretto with vivid intensity and drama. Niobe is a sonic treat from start to finish for the opera lover, taking an astonishing Early Music journey that vitally connects its sparkling acoustic orchestration with its vocal fervor and beauty.
The fully staged production of Le Carnival that took place at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston for several nights during the BEMF re-united many members of the Niobe recording in a reveling feast of musical colors and visual treats. The beautiful sets of this production, along with exquisite lighting and costumes (designed by Gilbert Blin, Christopher Estrom, Anna Watkins and their teams), fully immersed the audience in the world of a wintry Baroque Venice (down to the stage floor painted as an iced-over river amongst building and bridges).
The BEMF Dance Company moved in costumes of regal and whimsical designs: minstrels and merchants; dancers with animal masks and in animal costumes, including a giant bear and a host of flashing gold and red feathered creatures adorned with fantastical Venetian masks. There were an abundance of dance scenes, (a few overdrawn in length and containing some silly cliché portrayals), but most of the choreography and dance was stellar and lent an air of celebration and great spirit to the music making. [Le Carnival’s liberetto was composed by Jean Francois Reynard (1655-1709]. The BEMF Festival Orchestra, lead by concertmaster Robert Mealy and Musical Directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, was superb throughout – always ready to ignite the next delectable dance on their period instruments.
It was fascinating to hear how O’Dette and Stubbs, along with Charles Weaver, (the three theorbo players of the orchestra), partnered with harpsichordist, Michael Sponseller, to form a small ensemble (within the larger orchestra) and were regularly called upon to deliver delicate accompaniment to the many arias and parlando (spoken words sung by vocalists) in this Baroque opera. This scoring worked beautifully to allow each vocalist to be heard clear and passionate in their individual vocal styles as they sang partnered with the shining soft notes of the theorbo and harpsichord, (with the rest of the orchestra coming in to accentuate musical interludes or the swirl of dance scenes).
Two vocalists from the production were particularly dazzling in their chemistry with the BEMF Orchestra and the music: Karina Gavin, playing the scheming, bold and passionate Leonore and her foil, Amanda Forsyth, playing the light, sweet and radiant Isabelle. The vocal qualities of these two central characters fit their personas perfectly. Forsyth’s voice was silver-toned, bright and effortless, her arias beautifully lit by the delicate strums of the accompanying theorbo.
In contrast, Gavin’s voice was a golden force with soulful depth and ardor. Her arias were full of sumptuous passion (with effortless portamento– gliding from one note to the next) that matched her character’s bold smoldering need for revenge against Leonore and Leandre, the man who rejects Leonore’s love.
Leonore’s accomplice, Rodolphe, played by Douglas Williams, delivered his own elemental vocal force with incandescent low vocals that glowed with majesty and power. Christian Immler, who played several roles in this production, also lit up the stage with his regal presence and refulgent vocals, thundering into the theatre’s expanse with his low vocal prowess.
In the end, of course, the lovers Isabelle and Leandre are united; the revengeful Leonore hovers in the background (seemingly content with another lover’s attentions) and all is well in the kingdom of Baroque Venice. The dancing and celebrations continued to the end, with the BEMF orchestra frolicking one last time (in all its acoustic glory) in the last sparkling uplift of strings and held breath.
* The splendor of Early Music continues in live performances throughout the year under the auspices of BEMF. Check their website, www.bemf.org, for upcoming concerts in the 2017-2018 season.