On the ark of discovery

Choral Arts and Philadelphia Bach Collegium present The Lost Oratorios of Giacomo Carissimi

4 minute read
A snapshot of a sheet of music with the text: "Carissimi, Dialogo del gigante Golia", lists the instruments in Italian.
'Dialogo del Gigante Golias' is part of Choral Arts' new concert honoring composer Giacomo Carissimi. (Photo courtesy of Choral Arts Philadelphia.)

Tales of lost treasure have a universal appeal, though they’re not always readily associated with classical music. But a quite remarkable concert came about as a result of buried musical riches and the search that unearthed them.

Discovering lost treasures

Recently, Choral Arts Philadelphia and the instrumentalists of Philadelphia Bach Collegium presented a concert of two unpublished oratorios by Italian composer Giacomo Carissimi: Diluvium Universale: Dialogo del Noe (The Universal Flood: Dialogue of Noah) and Dialogo del Gigante Golias (Dialogue of the Giant Goliath). Carissimi was a musical pioneer, one of the most influential composers of his time who was writing oratorios almost a hundred years before Handel penned Messiah.

The discovery and performance of this repertoire is of special interest to early music devotees. These two works are musically and textually dense and are written in Latin (not Italian, as might be expected). Though they have biblical themes, they’re not liturgical works but intellectual constructs or short morality dramas. Each is about 20 minutes and packed with vocal fireworks excellently realized by the 10 accomplished singers in this concert, the Choral Arts soloists with virtuosic individual parts that rise out of highly ornamented ensemble singing.

Starting a dialogue

Dialogue of Noah begins as Deus/God (tenor James Reese) speaks to Noe/Noah (baritone Jean Bernard Cerin) about his plans to flood the world in punishment for the people’s malice. Much of this work is a dense musical description of the decimation and despair of the people, which is beautifully sung but is hard to follow (even with the extensive printed text) because of its breakneck vocal pacing. Neither animals trooping into the ark nor Noah’s family appear in Carissimi’s retelling, which ends with a lyrical section describing the post-flood appearance of iris aurea, iris amata—the golden and blessed rainbow familiar from the biblical version.

The second work, Dialogue of the Giant Goliath, tells the familiar tale of the great fighter Goliath (bass Steven Eddy) who is bested by a slingshot by the humble shepherd David (soprano Kathryn Radakovich). This work is constructed differently from Noah; it’s a fairly evenly divided dialogue between the giant and his adversary, interspersed with choral interludes. While still highly ornamented (especially the final victorious chorus), this music is much less florid, more tightly constructed, and more clearly dramatic, so the storytelling here is clearer and easier to comprehend.

These two oratorios were discovered by Richard Stone during his trip to Kroměříž (a small city in the Czech Republic), where he was seeking works by some of his favorite early music composers. Stone is an early music expert, accomplished theorbo player, co-founder of Tempesta di Mare, and member of the Philadelphia Bach Collegium. In the music library of the 17th century Prince Carl II of Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn, Stone unexpectedly unearthed these unpublished Carissimi pieces. The composer was one of the stars of his age but is now mostly known for his two oratorios Jonah and Jephtha, some secular cantatas, and songs often assigned for vocal study.

In harmony

On his return, Stone recruited colleague Matthew Glandorf (who heads Choral Arts Philadelphia) and they began planning this concert, which they hope is the first part of a two-part project with two more of these unearthed Carissimi works (Queen Esther and The Song of Deborah) presented next season during Choral Arts’ 40th anniversary. This concert also featured a tempered and impeccable ensemble of seven baroque instruments: five strings, a box organ (with Glandorf conducting from the instrument), and Stone playing one of the two (yes, two!) theorbos, a lute with a dramatically extended neck.

The concert opened with Twenty/Twenty, a short, moving pandemic-response work by Scott Ordway. Ordway, who was in the audience, gathered his text by asking regional college students to finish this sentence: “One year ago, I did not know that ... ” The composer then set the widely varying responses for an a cappella ensemble. His plangent transparent harmonies ebbed and flowed through text that moved from reminiscence, uncertainty, and regret: “One year ago, I did not know that I would miss the sound of traffic, ... that I would question everything, ... that I should have held you closer."

What, When, Where

The Lost Oratorios of Giacomo Carissimi. Giacomo Carissimi. Twenty/Twenty by Scott Ordway; Diluvium Universale: Dialogo del Noe and Dialogo del Gigante Golias by Carissimi. Conducted by Matthew Glandorf. Choral Arts Philadelphia and Philadelphia Bach Collegium. $15-$40. November 10 at Church of the Holy Trinity, 1904 Walnut Street, Philadelphia; and November 14, 2021 at Church of the Good Shepherd, 1116 Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr. (267) 240-2586 or choralarts.com.

Entry to Choral Arts concerts requires proof of vaccination and photo ID, with properly fitted masks worn at all times and social distancing encouraged. Children under 12, and those unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons, may show proof of a negative Covid-19 test from the previous 72 hours. Some Choral Arts venues will operate at reduced capacity with distanced seating, and for the safety of audiences and performers, all singers will wear masks, as will instrumentalists whenever possible.

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