Saturday, July 15, 2017

Without a song: Infusion Baroque visits from Montreal to acquaint Early Music Festival audience with Italian instrumental music

It's more than a ghostly influence — the Italian language that's shot through classical-music lingo — even though just about
Infusion Baroque of Montreal opened the festival's final weekend.
everyone thinks of the Austro-German repertoire as central to concert life.

"Allegro," "andante" — all those tempo and expression directions in the scores — and of course two of the most common types of classical pieces, the sonata and the concerto, fly the Italian flag. Ditto with instrument technology, particularly of strings, that represents the gold standard to this day: Stradivari, Amati, Guarneri. Oh, and the musical scale note names. Where does it end?

The prominence of Italian reflects the fact that not only opera, but also instrumental music, owes much of its origin and development to musical ingenuity on the boot-shaped European peninsula. This early, enduring power was reflected in "An Italian Voyage," the program that Infusion Baroque presented to open the final weekend of the 2017 Indianapolis Early Music Festival.

Arcangelo Corelli is the composer who received the tradition of Renaissance ensemble music as heritage and transformed it into genres that modernized the sonata and established the concerto. Infusion Baroque, a quartet from Montreal, divided "An Italian Voyage" into the first half of the 17th century and from its latter half into the 18th — roughly matching Corelli's dates (1653-1713) and influence. (A misprint on the festival booklet's main program page confuses this crucial division, giving Corelli the same dates as his eminent, well-traveled pupil Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762). The program notes get it right).

Infusion Baroque in performance Friday evening at Indiana History Center.
Despite the traces of Italian over the breadth of classical music, today's retrospective focus is usually on opera, devised in Italy around 1600 and advanced so conclusively by one man, Claudio Monteverdi, that Richard Taruskin, in the Oxford History of Western Music, titles a chapter with the quip, "Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi."  Italian librettists helped seal the deal for Italian-language opera, which became the standard-bearer for Italian music seemingly for good in the 19th century.

The program's first half offered a look into the early forms as they developed from the dance and were garnished by the growth of virtuosity. The simple repetitive bass line of the Renaissance chaconne, or ciaccona, lent itself to layering of instrumental voices. This was illustrated as members of the quartet came onstage individually, building upon the pattern laid down by cellist Andrea Stewart. Harpsichordist Rona Nadler provided harmonic support on a brightly assertive Robert Duffy instrument, on top of which Alexa Raine-Wright (recorder) and Sallynee Amawat (violin) added decorative lines often in near-imitation of each other. A toccata by Girolamo Frescobaldi displayed the Italian taste for the ornate, taken in a virtuosic direction beyond even the most adroit singers, who were establishing the popularity of opera during his lifetime (1583-1643), thanks to Monteverdi and his contemporaries.

That the burgeoning genre of opera was an influence on non-vocal music became evident after the Tarquinio Merula chaconne
with Dario Castello's "Sonata duodecima." More expertly executed recorder-violin interplay in a structure of slow/fast alternation evoked the recitative/aria contrasts of opera. Though well-played by Stewart and Nadler in duo, Domenico Gabrielli's Sonata No. 1 in G major for cello and basso continuo overstayed its welcome. Another chaconne, this one by Antonio Bertali, was then launched without pause. The first half ended with an enthralling Sinfonia from the oratorio "La Susanna," by Alessandro Stradella, which displayed the maturation of instrumental music with the vocal heritage absorbed.

Development of musical materials in the modern sense burst forth after intermission. Corelli, the linchpin of the program, was beautifully showcased in a G major sonata. The dramatic possibilities of cadences were nicely illustrated, and the audience was shown something of the concerto style, with a first-among-equals approach here and in pieces by Geminiani and Locatelli that followed. Raine-Wright's switch to a transverse flute for works by Locatelli and Jean-Marie Leclair was welcome; I'm among relatively few early-music listeners who can easily get too much of the end-blown flute (recorder). I really loved the tone of her baroque flute; intonation was impeccable, and her agility matched what she had shown as a recorder player.

The quartet worked really well together throughout, and the wealth of contrast in handling small ensembles and exploring their potential by these baroque composers was thoroughly illustrated. I was struck by a parallelism in the two halves that was (perhaps wisely) not brought out in oral or written program notes: Both of the composers chosen to end each half — Stradella and Leclair — were murdered. That's a pretty rare conclusion of composer life spans, it seems to me; only Marc Blitzstein, a 20th-century American opera composer, comes to mind as a comparable victim of fatal foul play.

In this concert, however, there was nothing but fair play to be encountered.

[Concert photo by Dan Shields]