Monday, December 4, 2017

Bloomington visitors celebrate Reformation anniversary with examples of its musical legacy

Concentus, a choral and instrumental ensemble of Indiana University, capped three performances labeled simply "Reformation" Sunday afternoon at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, supplemented by Alchymy Viols and special guest, cornetto
Dana Marsh led Alchymy Viols and other Early Music Institute musicians last year at a courthouse concert in Bloomington
virtuoso and scholar Bruce Dickey.

The concert here, conducted by Dana Marsh, was a well-assembled sampler highlighting milestones of early Baroque music as developed by German Protestant composers. Protestantism turns 500 this year. This program's  music reflected the influence of Italian masters  — much of it firsthand in a tradition notably extended through Handel and Mozart — of choral and instrumental textures and expressive splendor on musicians from the other side of the Alps.

Indiana native Bruce Dickey now lives in Italy.
Foundational at the start, the concert opened with Martin Luther's "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" (A Mighty Forgtress Is Our God), with settings by Caspar Othmayr and Michael Praetorius indicating how interpretation of texts became embedded in German composers' treatment of them, in contention with the chorale mainstream. Satan's"great strength and much deceit" (in their German equivalent) is repeated at greater volume. The solo soprano's entrance in the second verse underlines human helplessness in this battle against "the old, evil enemy" before introducing humanity's advocate, Jesus Christ, who will turn the tide of battle.

Solo singers and the 18-voice choir displayed their unity and precise balance throughout the program, which showcased, with the insertion of interludes, the guest artist Dickey, whose mastery of the cornetto was on conspicuous display throughout. The cornetto is a wooden trumpet with a cup mouthpiece and a sound that has some of the articulate force of its brass successors but whose construction brings to the fore a mellow, sometimes plaintive tone.

It had the latter quality particularly in a solo piece with simple organ accompaniment by the 16th-century composer Ascanio Trombetti. More central to its tradition, and fully displaying Venetian splendor, were a couple of canzonas by Giovanni Gabrieli for two cornetti, three sackbuts (early trombones), organ, and strings. This music is usually heard today arranged for modern brass ensemble. Dickey was also in the spotlight with the program's other cornettist, Etienne Asselin, as their complementary voices were positioned on either side of the organ, played by Ken Yeung.

Heinrich Schütz found particularly stimulating his studies with Giovanni Gabrieli, bringing back to his homeland inspiration for  music that has led to his reputation as the major German composer before J.S. Bach. Performance of his "German magnificat" was one of the most impressive demonstrations of the performers' collective strength under Marsh's guidance. The meaning of the text was put across eloquently in the successive entries of the lines about the generations who will call Mary blessed. When God scatters the proud, the crucial word "zerstreuet" is repeated forcefully. When the Almighty leaves the rich empty, or sends them empty away (as the King James Bible has it), the scoring is bare. With the doxology tacked on to the end of Mary's song of praise, extra majesty pours forth from singers and orchestra alike.

Sometimes Schütz micromanages the texts effectively. When "Unser Wandel ist im Himmel" (Our pilgrimage is to heaven), the opening line ascends tortuously. At the end, a clear distinction of "weak" and "strong" expressivity occurs on the words "untertänig" (subservient) and  "machen" (make), respectively.

The climax of the concert was radiantly presented with the performance of Praetorius' complex setting of "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme," with its well-placed high points of majesty, ending with an unstinting song of praise. Without any sign of forcing, the glory highlighted by the text was evenly produced at the summit of the musicians' well-honed blending. Finally, a wonderful Schütz setting of Psalm 150 highlighted the composer's resourceful imagination. The praise is antiphonally presented, and the tone pictures are vivid as the litany of praise proceeds: The sackbuts are of course prominent when praise by brass instruments is indicated.

All instruments gain in prominence in the next few lines, and the evocation of the dance yields a dance-like animation. Particularly clever is the way voices and organ are poised in resonant alternation to render two lines relating to cymbals, which can thus be evoked without any futile attempt at mimicry. For the very end, there was a smooth transition into a speedier tempo and rocking triple meter for the concluding "Alleluia!" This quincentennial observance could hardly have ended better.

[Alchymy Viols photo by Tae-Gyun Kim]

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