Magnificat Reviews

SFCV: Magnificat Awes With Christmas Mass

December 27th, 2013 Comments off

This review by Niels Swinkels was posted at San Francisco Classical Voice.

In its new concert season, Magnificat examines musical encounters and exchanges that influenced the music of the 17th century, a period marked by the invention of opera, oratorio, and virtuoso instrumental music, in which this Bay Area baroque ensemble specializes.

Last weekend’s season opener was a co-production with the San Francisco Early Music Society and performed together with Bay Area early wind ensemble The Whole Noyse. In three concerts in Palo Alto, Berkeley, and San Francisco, Magnificat juxtaposed music from the two preeminent representatives of the early 17th Century Venetian music scene: Giovanni Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi.

Both composers worked at the Basilica San Marco in Venice, as organist and maestro di capella (music director) respectively, but since Gabrieli died in 1612 and Monteverdi (1567-1643) did not even move to Venice until he was hired in 1613, it is highly unlikely that the two composers actually ever met in person, although they must have met in spirit — despite their different styles and aesthetics.

Last weekend, it was the Christmas spirit that brought them and their music together in A Venetian Christmas Mass, a re-enactment of the sonic events of a 17th-century Christmas day Mass, following the liturgical sequence and complete with chant and the recitation of prayers and Gospel readings.

Magnificat’s Artistic Director Warren Stewart drew the music for the re-creation of this Christmas mass from several different collections such as Gabrieli’s second book of Symphoniae Sacrae (Sacred Symphonies) and Monteverdi’s Selva morale e spirituale (Moral and Spiritual Forest, 1641), and the Vespro Della Beata Vergine (Vespers of the Blessed Virgin) from 1610.

They were both very effective in writing music that makes a huge impact … best summed up in a resounding ‘Wow!’ from an audience member behind me, when the resplendent reverberation of the majestic closing chord had only barely dissipated.

In a recent radio interview on KALW’s Open Air, Stewart mentioned that both Gabrieli and Monteverdi wrote “music for grand and festive occasions such as Christmas, Easter, or major civic celebrations. And they were both very effective in writing music that makes a huge impact.”

That huge impact was best summed up in a resounding ‘Wow!’ from an audience member behind me, at the end of the Sunday concert at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, when the resplendent reverberation of the majestic closing chord of Gabrieli’s Omnes Gentes, plaudite minibus (All nations, clap your hands) had only barely dissipated.

The Venetian Christmas Mass unexpectedly stirred deep memories in my no-longer-Roman-Catholic soul, especially in the way in which bass and “celebrant” Hugh Davies sang/recited the second Gospel reading and the “Prefatio,” gently accompanied by the background noise of sniffs and coughs and creaking pews; with people moving their bodies and shuffling their feet.

It was a complete soundscape of the neighborhood church of my youth, in which my father conducted the choir for more than forty years. The only difference was that no priest in my memory ever sang as beautifully as Hugh Davies. And I am sure that my father would have loved to have the assistance of vocalists like Magnificat’s fine octet.

In addition to a powerful intellectual time machine, A Venetian Christmas Mass was also an overwhelming concert experience, due to the vocal and instrumental splendor of Magnificat as an ensemble.

Of the many magnificent vocal moments, I especially liked the way in which the timbres of sopranos Clara Rottsolk and Jennifer Paulino beautifully blended and complemented each other in the rising melodic gestures of “Et ascendit in caelum” (And He ascended into heaven), right after the male singers dramatically explored the despondency of the forever descending melody of “Crucifixus etiam pro nobis” (He was also crucified for us), in the Credo setting by Monteverdi.

Together with the continuo players John Dornenburg, John Lenti, and Katherine Heater (violone, theorbo, organ), The Whole Noyse, expanded for the occasion with two additional sackbuts (early trombones) played virtuosic instrumental interludes during the Offertory and Communion and provided an impressive sonorous foundation for the monumental architecture of the music of Gabrieli and Monteverdi.

San Francisco Chronicle: “sumptuous and elegantly delivered music”

December 12th, 2012 Comments off

This review by Joshua Kosman was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Dec. 11, 2012.

Christmas was a good time in the 1680s’ Paris establishment of the Princess Marie de Lorraine – an occasion for celebration, contemplation and exquisite music, to judge from Sunday afternoon’s brief and wonderful concert by the early-music ensemble Magnificat.

Marie, known as Mlle. de Guise, had the great French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier as part of her household staff. And that meant that the yuletide observances – even though sung by a corps of amateurs – were being guided by one of the period’s subtlest and most inventive musical minds.

Sunday’s concert in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco – the lone offering during this hiatus year of one of the Bay Area’s most indispensable arts groups – conveyed some of the spirit of those long-ago holiday events. Charpentier’s “Christmas Pastorale” is a winning blend of spiritual reflection, narrative drama and flat-out bawdy fun, and the small ensemble – six each of singers and instrumentalists performing under the guidance of Artistic Director Warren Stewart – caught that range of tone perfectly. Read more…

SFCV Review of Scarlatti Concert: In Light of Reason

April 7th, 2009 Comments off

This review by Joseph Sargent was posted at San Francisco Classical Voice on April 6, 2009.

An unmistakable allure surrounds concerts that bring long-neglected music into the new light of day. Aside from the sheer novelty of presenting repertory otherwise seldom available in concert or on recordings, these efforts can prove highly memorable for the listener, who comes away with a distinct feeling of having experienced something special. Such encounters happen frequently with Warren Stewart’s Baroque ensemble Magnificat, whose penchant for seeking out hidden treasures often yields delightful performances of music by underappreciated composers.

For Magnificat’s latest concert set, the presumptive diamond in the rough was a genre rather than a composer. Alessandro Scarlatti’s Venere, Amore, e Ragione (Venus, Cupid, and Reason) is a “serenata” — a term with slippery historical connotations but that in Scarlatti’s day denoted a festive, cantatalike work associated with important occasions, from grand state affairs to more intimate celebrations. Its text, by the Roman poet Silvio Stampiglia, details a dispute between Venus and Reason involving the latter’s newfound influence over Cupid, with Venus conceding in the end that love guided by reason yields better lovers.
Read more…

SFCV Review: When the Audience is the Congregation

February 13th, 2009 Comments off

This review by Anna Carol Dudley appeared in the February 10, 2009 edition of San Francisco Classical Voice.

Heinrich Schütz suggested that his Musikalische Exequien could be a substitute for a German mass. Warren Stewart has taken him at his word, incorporating the work into a full-length church service. Stewart’s Magnificat, complete with two organs, a continuo group, and eight singers (including a preacher and a deacon), performed the mass Saturday night at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley. The so-called audience served as congregation, joining in on some verses of the chorales.

Nowadays, chorales are called hymns, and in American churches are usually sung in English. The congregation was invited to applaud at the end, but that increasingly happens routinely in American church services. And lo, nobody was turned away for not singing or not knowing German or not caring much for sermons. In fact, the congregation seemed to enjoy singing chorale verses and listening to the more elaborate verse settings. Preacher Hummel chanted the Epistle and spoke the sermon in German, risking encouragement of the traditional practice of sleeping through the sermon.

Schütz, born a hundred years before J.S. Bach, was a prolific composer. Greatly esteemed in his own time, he retained a sort of connoisseurs’ fame long after musical tastes had changed, and now his music — all available in good modern editions — is as highly regarded as it ever has been. Read more…

San Francisco Classical Voice Review: Funny, Even in Translation

April 20th, 2008 Comments off

This review by Thomas Busse was published in San Francisco Classical Voice on April 15, 2008.

The crack early-music ensemble Magnificat attempted the difficult challenge of performing a Baroque comic opera in concert over the weekend. The form is unlike serious opera or slighter genres such as intermezzos or serenatas, which readily lend themselves to unstaged presentation. Comic opera, with its typically recitative-heavy, slighter music, depends on stage action, comic timing, and the conveyance of complicated and farcical plots, much of which gets lost by singers in dress clothes standing in place.

I am happy to report that Magnificat, under Warren Stewart’s direction, pulled off the challenge magnificently on Saturday in Berkeley’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

The evening’s dusted-off museum piece was Alessandro Stradella’s penultimate stage work, Il Trespolo Tutore, a charming work from 1679, for which modern performing material was prepared by Michael Burden for performance at New College, Oxford, in 2004, with translations of the recitatives by Simon Dees and of the arias by Dorothy Manly.

The entire era of 17th-century opera is perhaps the largest unexplored territory in both modern performance and modern musicology. Unlike in later time periods, the delineation between aria and recitative was much less strict — “aria” was truer to its original meaning of “song” than were the extravagant da capo productions of, say, Handel. The recitatives tended to be more tuneful, yet they were built on functional harmony much more than the borderline-repertory works we hear now and then from Monteverdi and Cavalli. Read more…

San Francisco Classical Voice Review of Hamburg Gertrudenmusik

November 2nd, 2007 Comments off

In “Revivifying Liturgical Gems“, reviewer Scott Edwards, writing for San Francisco Classical Voice, appears to have really enjoyed the experience in spite of his predisposition against liturgical reconstructions. We’re glad he enjoyed the concert!

By the way, Classical Voice does a terrific job of covering the Bay Area classical music scene. Many thanks for the service they provide!

SFCV Review of Rosenmüller Vespers: A Magical Re-creation

April 4th, 2006 Comments off

By Rebekah Ahrendt

The following review appeared on San Francisco Classical Voice.

The sanctuary of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco was transformed into the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice Sunday afternoon. Performing a re-creation of a vespers service for the Feast of the Annunciation, Magnificat wowed the audience with works by Johann Rosenmüller, Giovanni Rovetta, and Francesco Cavalli. This program was a great example of what happens when good colleagues perform the music of good colleagues.

Rosenmüller, Rovetta, and Cavalli all worked together at San Marco beginning in 1658, when Rosenmüller arrived from his native Germany. He had been scheduled to take up the cantorate in Leipzig (the eventual job of J.S. Bach), but was arrested in 1655, having been accused of homosexual activity. Somehow he managed to escape and found a warm welcome in Venice, where he took a job as trombonist in the San Marco Cathedral. Read more…

SFCV Review of Il Pastor Fido Concert

October 13th, 2005 Comments off

This review by Joseph Sargent appeared in the San Francisco Classical Voice on September 30, 2005.

Giovan Battista Guarini’s play Il Pastor Fido (The Faithful Shepherd) was a failure as drama but proved extraordinarily successful as literature. The tragicomic 17th-century play of pastoral love, lust and loss was first published in 1590. No other source of lyrical texts surpassed it in popularity among Italian composers of the time.

Il Pastor Fido evidently holds a similar appeal for Magnificat, which compiled a selection of solo and polyphonic pieces from the play for its opening concert of the 2005-2006 season, organized into a narrative structure that mimics the play’s plot. Under the guidance of artistic director/violoncellist Warren Stewart, a consort of five vocalists and three instrumentalists tackled this repertoire Friday at Palo Alto’s First Lutheran Church with abandon, delivering an animated performance that represented a strong debut for the ensemble’s new season.

Any effective performance of Italian madrigals ought to lavish great attention on the tell-tale aspects of the genre: frequent emotional shifts in the text, an innate sense of theatricality, and distinctive “text paintings” in which musical devices accentuate the literal meaning of individual words. Magnificat proved to be adept interpreters in this regard, their approach focused on conveying the dramatic as well as musical power of these settings. Read more…