Choral Arts Society's Gesualdo program (2nd review)

Modern voices, Renaissance sins

Montalbano: Remorseless image.
Montalbano: Remorseless image.

Don Carlo Gesualdo should be a cautionary figure for people who think they can romp around the Internet without worrying about the future. Gesualdo killed his wife and her lover, as any good Italian Renaissance noblemen might have. And today, 400 years after the event, the double murder is still mentioned in the program notes for every concert that includes Gesualdo's music.

Think about that the next time you're tempted to post something on YouTube.

For the third concert in the Choral Arts Philadelphia Vespers series, Matthew Glandorf built the program around the melancholy "Responsory Motets" that Gesualdo composed for the three dark days that precede the Easter celebration of the Resurrection. As he did with the other Vespers concerts, Glandorf devised a program that reconstructed some features of a real service and embedded the music in its liturgical context.

Glandorf's boldest stroke was his decision to include modern material. The concert opened with a Latin Lord's Prayer, as a real service might have, but the setting had been composed by Igor Stravinsky. Three 20th-Century "Canticles" by Benjamin Britten alternated with three groups of Gesualdo's Renaissance responses.

The modern works could have jarred, but Glandorf made good choices. Britten's Canticles linked Gesualdo's Renaissance religious attitudes to modern equivalents and added variety and dramatic contrast.

As intense as opera

Gesualdo is supposed to be noted for his dissonances and odd flights, but his motets seem fairly straightforward to a modern ear. Britten's setting for the sacrifice of Abraham, on the other hand, is as intense as a scene from an opera.

David Price's dark tenor and Maren Montalbano's mezzo created a vivid, remorseless picture of a father tormented by divided loyalties and a son who gradually works out the truth of his situation.

The second Britten, Still Falls the Rain, is one of the 20th Century's great protest songs. Edith Sitwell wrote the text during the bombing of London and Britten set it for tenor, piano and horn after World War II. I heard David Price sing it several times many years ago, in performances that emphasized its origins as an outcry against the brutal example of human sinfulness that Dame Edith witnessed when she wrote the poem. Steven Bradshaw's lighter, less intense voice created a more reflective, liturgical mood that highlighted the poem's religious imagery.

Eliot's Easter fable

For the third canticle, Bradshaw, Price and baritone Jackson Williams joined in Britten's setting of T.S. Elliot's Journey of the Magi, with Bradshaw singing countertenor. The Magi are normally associated with Christmas, not Easter, but Elliot's poem links birth to death and change.

For his finale, Glandorf picked another piece that contrasted with Gesualdo's contributions. Gregorio Allegri's 17th-Century setting of Psalm 51 may be an Ash Wednesday piece, but it's famous for its exciting jumps to high C that are executed by the soprano in the offstage quartet. Veronica Chapman Smith vaulted skyward in style, and the evening ended with a satisfying touch of musical joy.

Lent may confront composers with some of the darkest texts ever written, but the best of them always find some way to make their listeners exit smiling.♦

To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.

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