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Exquisite Sighs, some laughs: Gesualdo & Monteverdi

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Apr 6th, 2019

Jennifer Tyo, left; Christine Gevert, right

The problem with the standing army of sixteenth century Italian poetry remains its facile schematics: men drowning in self-pity over being rejected by the latest teenage beauty to bloom in the greenhouse of aristocratic privilege: the wooers have been rejected. Ludovico Ariosto was, of course, the monumental exception to this trend, which he so wittily satirized, yet his brilliant narratives in verse have been replaced by a bewildering forest of novels.

While the Italian poets of that era today receive low marks, the same cannot be said of musicians of that era, especially Gesualdo and Monteverdi. Samples of their musical settings graced the ears of the audience at Saint James place Friday evening as Christine Gevert’s Crescendo chorus held forth at Saint James Place in Great Barrington. Yet neither musician was about to put to music the work of the real poets of the period—Michelangelo’s brooding sonnets or Aretino’s sonnets on the various sexual positions---because they would be promptly unemployed.

Gesualdo had introduced chromaticism, unexpected dissonances, and sudden changes in keys to chorale music, which he enlivened by abrupt musical transitions. This transformed the staid text of the disappointed lover as Gesualdo focused on the clarity of the text. Gesualdo was so admired by Stravinsky that he attempted to compete with Gesualdo by redoing some of Gesualdo’s madrigals.

Gesualdo’s work in the Garden of Sighs was heightened by his own disappointments in the ever-futile project of love. My favorite Gesualdo pieces performed were: the mischievous joy of “When, laughing and beautiful,” wherein the merry and lascivious Cupids play with the nude body of the beloved, which made me nearly laugh out-loud in companionable astonishment, so enlivened by tenor Stephen Hassmer and bass Jim Barrett; the depraved morbidity of “My beautiful sun” with Alto Karen Cook and tenor Doug Schmolze offered the other side of Gesualdo’s flipping coin in trade.

In the next century Monteverdi went way beyond Gesualdo in many ways, especially in giving emotional power to the solo singer who was finally able to sing naturally without affectation. The sterling example of such an approach with a text brimming with contempt and anger was performed by Jordan Rose Lee in “Whoever wants to have a happy and joyful heart, / should not follow cruel love.” Lee sang with such natural passion and fierce fury that she appeared as a living thunderbolt and the audience was her beloved victim.

Tenors Stephen Hassmer and Ron M’Sadoques excelled in Monteverdi’s short “Oh my love, oh my life” as did bass Jim Barrett. In this program Monteverdi bore the weight of longer and perhaps more serious works as they were predominantly religious in nature, which means the texts were more familiar and consequently less lively, although the music was remarkably beautiful and subtle. When one hears such subtlety today, it encourages one to think that our era has lost its ear.

Soprano Jennifer Tyo was most affecting in the Confiteor, yet I thought the formula of the psalm and doxology somewhat dimmed the beauty of the music. I would have preferred more secular madrigals from Monteverdi in the program. Soprano Sarah Fay was superb in “This life is a stroke of light” with its autumnal gestalt of life’s last days.

Overall, Gesualdo’s wit overshadowed Monteverdi’s devotion in this program. Christine Gevert conducted the chorus with avid enthusiasm, which was obviously inspiring and contagious. Gevert also at times played organ as she conducted, while Hideki Yamaya ably played the largest theorbo I have ever seen.