Magnificat in Bloomington: Stunning music stunningly realized
The following review of Magnificat’s performance at the Bloomington Early Music Festival by Peter Jacobi appeared in the Bloomington Herald-Times on September 12, 2011.
The group is San Francisco-based, and some of its members actually reside in that area. Its artistic director, Warren Stewart, however, now lives in Berlin. One of its two tenors, Paul Elliott, directs IU’s Early Music Institute. Its theorbo player is Nigel North, another EMI stalwart. The bunch of them get together periodically as Magnificat Baroque. And as such, they united here in recent days, six vocalists and eight instrumentalists, to prepare for a Bloomington Early Music Festival performance Saturday evening in First United Church. What a concert they gave.
They roused a large audience to cheers with generous samplings of music from Claudio Monteverdi’s Eighth (and final) Book of Madrigals, his “Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi” (“Madrigals of War and Love”). The event turned out to be a case of stunning music stunningly realized.
The Monteverdi material has been at the heart of Magnificat Baroque’s repertoire for some 20 years. One could tell. Heard was a combine of singing and playing completely natural, stylistically right, and utterly tantalizing. Director Stewart devoted the first part of the program to the songs of war, the second to those of love. They intersect in the belief espoused by Monteverdi and the poets whose words he used that war and love have a strong relationship, in that warriors return from battle to love and that lovers do battle in the conflict between the sexes.
A sampling of interpretive approach came early, in the first madrigal chosen, “Altri canti d’Amor.” As the singers gave breath to words about love (“Let others sing of Love, the tender archer’s sweet charms and sighed-for kisses”), the music seemed to be carried on soft breezes. When the words shifted to war (“Of Mars I sing, furious and fierce, the harsh clashes and the bold battles”), a storm of sound accosted the ears. Nothing heard seemed forced; music and performance supported emotion and mood.
So it continued throughout, song after song, a seesaw of expressions, from achingly beautiful outpourings to outbursts permeated with harsher passions, then back again. Surely, one of the highlights was the “Lamento della ninfa” (“Lament of the Nymph”) for four singers, an absolutely ravishing exposition about love, betrayal and torment.
Magnificat Baroque’s singing contingent was terrific: two flexibly voiced and evocative sopranos, Catherine Webster and Laura Heimes; a pure and resonant mezzo, Meg Bragle; two fine tenors, Paul Elliott, so well suited in training and experience for music of this period, and Daniel Hutchings, with mellifluous, slightly more operatic tone, and Peter Becker, possessing a bass that seemed to rumble and roar from out of the deep.
Two excellent violinists, Rob Diggins and Jolianne von Einem, were kept particularly busy as co-soloists whenever instrumental bridges were called for.
The concert ended with “Il Ballo delle Ingrate” (“The Dance of the Ungrateful Women”), a stage piece Monteverdi incorporated into his Eighth Book of Madrigals that was originally written for the marriage of Francesco Gonzaga, the heir apparent to the Duke of Mantua, and Margherita of Savoy. The story concerns Cupid urging his mother Venus to request Pluto, the king of Hades, to pardon a cluster of women condemned to the underworld because of ingratitude. Far more importantly, “Il Ballo” provides musicians with plenty of challenging splendors and, consequently, an audience with a series of impactful arias to relish. Saturday’s musicians did right well. Response was ardent and prolonged.