When you stop and think about it, the varieties of music that fall under the broad category of classical are pretty amazing. From the ethereal sound of plain song to modern choral music of expressive meaning; from the lute to the guitar; from the harpsichord to the grand piano; from the intimacy of chamber music to the awesome sound of a full symphony orchestra; solos, duets, concertos, oratorios, organ recitals and opera are just a hint at the scope.
The Newberry Consort, performing in Hill Hall on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill as part of the William S. Newman Series, focused our attention on style of music that comes from the great years of flux as the music world was beginning to toy with the new thinking of the Baroque era after the Renaissance had reached its artistic apex. Woven sounds of worshipful glory were giving way to more molded sounds of emotional expression. Modes were giving way to scales. Styles and tastes were changing. Melody with accompaniment was a new taste that was all the rage. Out of this creativity the earliest opera emerged along with songs. Texts focused on the suffering and joy of love, the beauty of nature.
In this concert we heard from several of the composers who were shaping this time of change from the end of the sixteenth century into the early years of the seventeenth century. The most famous names were Claudio Monteverdi and Girolamo Frescobaldi. Lesser known perhaps, but composing equally inviting music, were Salamone Rossi, Marco da Gagliano, Ferdinando Gonzaga, Giuseppe Cenci, Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi, and Lodovico Agostino.
The program was established as "Music in the Hall of Mirrors: Entertaining the Duke of Mantua." The ruling family, the Gonzagas had surrounded themselves with virtuosic singers and musicians who entertained every Friday evening. The musicians entertaining the crowd for this concert were David Douglass, founding member of the Newberry Consort and current director, first violin; Brandi Berry, widely known soloist and early music performer, second violin; Daniel Elyar, an active performer in baroque ensembles here and in Europe, violist; Brent Wissick, the Zachary Taylor Smith Distinguished Term Professor in the Department of Music at UNC-CH, cello; Mark Shuldiner, highly acclaimed keyboardist, harpsichord; and Ellen Hargis, one of America's premier early music singers, soprano.
These artists brought to the twenty-first century the virtuoso of Mantua and a keen understanding of the music that was being made for the aristocracy of the time, and it was a keen pleasure to hear. This music is charming and elegant and its pleasure is undeterred by the passing centuries. Hargis changed costumes frequently and lit up the stage and the hall with her enchanting voice. We heard a handful of excerpts from Monteverdi's Orfeo, dances and songs by Rossi and excerpts from Il Pastor Fido, several instrumental dances and songs by Fresdobaldi including a harpsichord Toccata, Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna and much more.
Here is a random sampling of English translations from the texts: "I am Music, who with sweet melodies knows how to soothe the most troubled heart." "With a clear example I shall show you, Lords and Ladies, of how dangerous is the power of Love and to what depths it brings one." "Let me die! And who would you have comfort me in such a harsh fate, in such great suffering? Let me die!" "So sweet is the torment I hear in my breast that I live in content for a cruel Beauty." "That disdainful glance shining and menacing, that poisonous dart flies to wound my breast." Ah, courtly love must have been quite an adventure. There were songs of the joys of love too, notably Gastoldi’s A lieta vita – “To a happy life Love invites us, Fa la la …"
It was a delightful concert that felt sort of like eavesdropping on the aristocracy on a very special evening in Mantua in the early seventeenth century.