Early music stagings enhance concerts of well-chosen music

Members of the early music ensemble Atalante perform in period costume. (Photo courtesy of Fernanda Fernandez)

Staff Critic

The Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 50th St., was the site of two glorious early music concerts this past weekend. Saturday night saw the final concert of this year’s Newberry Consort season. Sunday featured Atalante, an early music ensemble founded by Erin Headley, performing an afternoon event.

The two presentations were quite different. The Newberry Consort offered a selection of music which French minstrels would have performed for royalty at the end of the Renaissance; Atalante provided music which John Milton would have heard during visits to Italy. So, the music, the time, and the place were different, but the two groups had one very interesting thing in common: They both did more than perform the music.

Both presentations used nonmusical elements to enhance the performance. The Newberry Consort had a large screen just above the players on which was projected paintings, tapestries, pages from illuminated manuscripts, and the like. These projections also included the texts to vocal pieces. It was a splendid way to convey the meaning of what was being sung while at the same time offering a peek into specific items the libraries and galleries of the era had reposed in them.

Atalante contributed to the sense of time and place with a pre-recorded set of brief spoken word segments of Milton’s reactions to what he was experiencing in Italy. In addition, Atalante made use of projections, typically of art. And the singers (but not the instrumentalists) performed in period gowns.

While the specific choices the two groups made were different, they were similar in the most important sense: They transformed a concert into a staged event, and invited the audience not merely to hear the music, but offered them a chance to enter the world in which this music was originally presented.

These stagings were enjoyable and well devised. Both were satisfying and stimulating. In comparing them, Atalante was the more polished, with their singers mostly performing from memory and offering more movement and gestures than typical of a recital, but not so much as to appear fully acted. The Newberry Consort’s presentation was superior in conveying the full import of the vocal works because they made the translations part of the presentation while Atalante offered no texts at all; neither on the screen nor in the program.

This meant that while brief synopses were provided in the program, as the Atalante women sang you were never clear at any moment just what they were singing about. This seems an odd miscalculation, because to put the audience member in the shoes of Milton, who spoke many languages including Italian and Latin, you would need to understand the texts. Atalante’s projections were smaller than the Newberry’s and were also projected much further back (on the back of the stage wall) making the artwork seem as if it was at the end of a dark tunnel and not quite part of the active proceedings.

But no matter. Atalante’s music was ravishing. Sopranos Nadine Balbeisi and Nell Snaidas and mezzo-soprano Theodora Baka were sensational in their interpretations of the music. They performed with Lucas Harris on chitarrone and baroque guitar, Elizabeth Motter on Italian triple harp, Michael Sponseller on harpsichord, and Erin Headley on viola da gamba and lirone. Headley is the group’s director and one of the world’s preeminent lirone players. (She has also performed with the Newberry Consort.)

The music for Atalante’s performance was by Luigi Rossi (1597-1653), Domenico Mazzocchi (1592-1665), and Marco Marazzoli (1602-16620) and was surely eye opening for the Puritan Milton, as it incorporated many ideas of Catholicism.

The singing was carefully considered, whether in solos, duets, or trios. Balbeisi was magnificent in Rossi’s “Pianto della Maddalena” opening with simplicity but developing the many colors of the lament and providing a slow but sure ratcheting of the tension. Baka offered great passion and had a very direct style of communication for Marazzoli’s “Lamento d’Artemisia.” Snaidas was persuasive and displayed strong technical skills in scenes from Marazzoli’s “L’Oratorio di Santa Caterina.”

It was a joy to hear the dark tones of Headley’s lirone, although it was sometimes very difficult to hear. Harris was stylish on both chitarrone and baroque guitar while Motter on the Italian triple harp offered bright sound. Sponseller’s harpsichord was the reliable anchor for them all.

The Newberry Consort’s performance, entitled “Le Jardin de Mélodies: A Parisian Renaissance Entertainment” was a large collection (over two dozen) mostly short works from the 16th century. In some cases all that was available was a single melody line. In these instances co-director of the Consort, David Douglass, provided highly satisfying arrangements of the music for his band of instrumentalists: Miriam Scholz-Carlson on violin (as was Douglass), Allison Selby Cook and Daniel Elyar on viola, Jeremy David Ward on bass violin, Paul O’Dette and Charles Weaver on lute, cittern and guitar, and Dan Meyers on percussion, bagpipe, and pipe and tabor.

This ensemble was strong, with O’Dette grabbing much of the attention with his fluent and beautiful work. His solo offering on small guitar, LeRoy’s “Branles de Poictou” was utterly beguiling.

A quintet of singers added depth. Co-director Ellen Hargis and Hannah De Priest were the sopranos, joined by tenors Nathan Dougherty and Matthew Dean as well as bass Joseph Hubbard. Standing near the back of the performing area and behind music stands, they were not always easy to hear over the instrumentalists, but they provided some truly wonderful performances, most notably “Le chant des oyseaulx” by Clèment Janequin.

Early music is in good hands with groups like Atalante and the Newberry Consort working hard to enhance the music and give it new life. Bravi!