These days, classical musicians have to sell their image before they can play their music. Not only does Anne Sophie-Mutter have to play gorgeous; she has to look gorgeous, too. Concerts have to have gimmicks, either lame verbal plays like "Mostly Mozart" or melodramatic, essay-style titles like "Barenboim: The Final Recital" (not coming up any time soon). Look at me: I love Yevgeny Kissin's Bach-Busoni, but I also love his virtuosic flamboyance (read: hair). It's hard times for ordinary-looking folks who just happen to create unbelievable art.
It's especially hard for musicians performing Renaissance music. Unless you're already a brand name (the Tallis Scholars, the Academy of Ancient Music), it's difficult to find the popular audience who will gobble up Monteverdi and company, period instruments included. Therefore, the University of Chicago is the perfect venue for a concert of early choral music. With a college full of nerdy undergraduate musicians and a graduate school full of even nerdier music theorists and historians, La Venexiana should have had no problem delivering a standing-ovation concert in Mandel Hall last Friday. Dressed in black from head to toe, the five-member ensemble and continuo presented a concert of Italian motets and madrigals from the 17th century. Whereas Alessandro Grandi, Claudio Monteverdi, and Ignatio Donati might be tough to sell to wizened CSO patrons, not so to the University of Chicago crowd. We love the somber, intellectual Latin; we love the all-black outfits; and, ooooh, we love the authenticity of the harpsichord. La Venexiana was preaching to the choir, literally: as well as music department faculty, I saw a good subsection of the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel Choir in the audience. I'm sure none of these aesthetes was in any doubt about the greatness of the Monteverdi motet. Bring it on, baby!
The first half of the concert failed to fulfill those cravings for open fifths, juicy fictae, and sublime countertenor sound. The opening piece, Grandi's "Anima Mea Liquefacta Est" for five voices and harpsichord, was mediocre. The intonation was good, the crescendi were in the right places, the continuo had an appropriate number of ornaments, etc., etc. The singers themselves, though, looked morose and out of it; director Claudio Cavina, also the ensemble's countertenor, waved his hands around while everyone else stared straight ahead. They could have been acting in accordance with the text, "my soul has been dissolved," but during the next solo segment of the program, even the members of the group who were quietly seated on stage looked depressed and uninterested in their colleagues' performances. When soprano Valentina Coladonato sang the phrase "Surge, amica mea" ("Arise, my love") in Monteverdi's "Nigra Sum" ("I am black"), the men took the opportunity to look down at their feet.
With her solo, however, Coladonato did bring life to the stage. First, she opened her mouth when she sang (the bass, Matteo Bellotto, and the tenors, Giuseppe Maletto and Sandro Naglia, seemed to have perfected the art of singing with their lips only half-parted). Second, her facial and body expressions reflected the emotion of the lyrics she was singing. Third, she had a lovely, clear tone, full yet senza vibrato, perfect for the Renaissance repertoire. And fourth, yes, she was beautiful (just like all Italian women; that's why so many canzoni have texts about love, no?). Of the rest of the pre-intermission motets, Grandi's five-voice "O Jesu Mea Vita" was best: the ensemble reveled in the piece's dissonances, varied the sequential passages, and sang through the cadences with thoughtfulness and grace. This far surpassed the previous duets and trios, in which the relationships between the soloists generally lacked dynamism. It also surpassed the Frescobaldi toccata for harpsichord, which, although it showcased the long, spindly fingers of Andrea Perugi, was not the most inspired piece to come out of the Renaissance period.
When they returned after the break, the ensemble had much more energy. Clearly they felt more freedom to enjoy themselves in Italian than in Latin, and in the first madrigal in an all-Monteverdi set, the low notes in the bass part came out rich and forte. Coladonato sang another enchanting solo, "Quel Sguardo Sdegnosetto" ("that disdainful little glance"): everyone in the audience felt the pain of her unrequited love. In "Gira Il Nemico Insidioso" (Love, the insidious enemy), a trio for countertenor, tenor, and bass, the three men were brave enough to start clowning around onstage, making fun of each other, satirizing the words of the madrigal, and trying to distract the harpsichordist while he was playing. While the acting wouldn't have won any Oscars, it was a pleasant surprise to see the musicians engage overtly and sincerely with their material.
The last madrigal, "Lamento di Arianna," was a strange choice for a finale, especially since it followed the trio's comic skit. Do we want to hear Arianna, her heart broken by Theseus, melodramatically lamenting her fortune, when we could be hearing (melodramatically) about pursuing love on horseback or getting kissed? Or hearing about beautiful eyes and taunting smiles and piercing arrows? As an ending note to the concert, "Arianna" reminded the listeners that these were serious musicians singing serious music from the serious period of the serious Renaissance. Ah, of course.
The applause sounded politely forced, and although the audience called back the group for an encore, they did not give a standing ovation. But Claudio Cavina oughtn't worry. If he and La Venexiana return, we'll still be here, eagerly awaiting more Monteverdi. Maybe The University of Chicago Presents should call the concert "Mostly Monteverdi," though. At least, as one member of Rockefeller Chapel Choir suggested to me during intermission, the singers should put an extra cube of sugar in their espresso on the morning of the concert.