In a period of abject political rectitude given the negative outcome of the Senate’s vote on including witnesses and documents in the trial to remove an impeached United States president from office, the February 7, 2020 opportunity to hear “Palestrina’s Perfect Art and Music by Renaissance Women” as presented by the Folger Consort with Stile Antico, Tesserae Baroque, and Webb Wiggins at Washington National Cathedral was welcomed respite. While the Dresser did not find the concert as perfect as the program title hinted, there were many moments of exquisite beauty.
As is the custom with the Folger Consort represented by Robert Eisenstein (viola da gamba, violin and recorder) and Christopher Kendall (lute and theorbo), guest artists provided a large part of the texture and virtuosity of the program. Stile Antico, a 12-member vocal ensemble specializing in Early Music and based in London, provided the angelic sound craved when one enters the gothic-styled Washington National Cathedral. Their name meaning old style was coined during the seventeenth century to describe the style of Renaissance church composition represented by Palestrina’s music. Tesserae Baroque, a fluid group of performers specializing in music of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries and based in Los Angeles, provided four musicians playing such instruments as sackbut, cornetto, and recorder to enhance the range and complexity of the Folger Consort strings. Webb Wiggins, a well credentialed organist, added depth on the continuo in this overly large space.
Compositions by Palestrina opened and closed the first set of the program with short pieces by women (Raffaella Aleotti, Maddalena Casulana, Sulpitia Cesis, Leonora d’Este) and men (Giovanni Gabrieli, Claudio Merulo, Giovanni Bassano, Lodovico Grossi da Viadana) composers of the Renaissance period. Two compositions by Palestrina—the lyrically beautiful but delicate and almost hard to hear “Regina coeli” opened the program while the robust “Stabat Mater” with all performers on stage closed the first set before intermission. Additionally, the first half of the program included Francesco Rognoni’s “Diminutions on Palestrina’s Pulchra es amica mea,” which was performed with organ and cornetto.
The second half of the program introduced three composers not heard earlier in the program. “Diminutions on Palestrina’s Vestiva I colli” by Bartolomé de Selma y Salaverde, Canzon à 4 instruments by Francesco Cavalli, and “Ave maris stella” by Claudio Monteverdi. “Diminutions on Vestiva I colli” performed with organ, viola da gamba, theorbo, and recorder was haunting in its beauty. This piece was prefaced by a performance of Palestrina’s original composition which was played by viola da gamba, theorbo, sackbuts, and cornettoes.
For the Dresser, the centerpiece of this concert was performance of three compositions by Leonora d’Este—“Veni sponsa Christi,” “O salutaris hostia,” and “Sicut lilium inter spinas.” Each was sung a cappella with five female singers who stood at varying distances behind the stage and inside the enclosed area known as the Great Choir, which produced a sound that was quieter and perhaps a bit muffled. The Dresser believes this staging was to simulate how the work of d’Este sounded as it was performed in her cloistered nunnery—nuns sang (and played instruments) for the public but the performers were behind a screen.
Other favorite compositions were the three compositions by Raffaella Aleotti—“Exaudi Deus orationem meam,” “Angelus ad pastores alit,” and “Sancta et immaculata virginitas.” The Dresser found herself breathing with relief as she listened to the Stile Antico voices singing. A bit troubling was the muddy sounding Gabrieli Cazone à 5 instruments which included Eisenstein on violin, an instrument that proved problematic for him earlier in the program when he lost his way in “Canzon Francese in risposta.”
Most of the texts that accompanied some of the music in this concert were either sacred (in the Catholic practice) or nature oriented. The Dresser nods to Nancy Allinson in her meditative poem “Souls within the Leaves,” which addresses the Hindu belief of reincarnation, a belief that seamlessly blends the sacred and the natural world.
SOULS WITHIN THE LEAVES
Parvita, my Indian neighbor and a Hindu, believes in reincarnation:
“Our souls will return after death. I am not afraid of dying. It is natural.”
Her own son, age 40, died of a heart attack. There was no warning.
He and his wife were watching a movie on a Friday night.
Parvita tells me: “He slumped in the chair as if he were sleeping.
But, he never woke up.”
Today, you and I walked through Montrose Park in Georgetown.
A warm October afternoon. Then we both smelled gas. It broke the spell.
That spell of living so much in the moment. I would call the gas company.
File a report. Try to help a neighborhood. I heeded the warning sign.
We watch on t.v. another hurricane hitting the Florida panhandle.
I grieve over the loss of trees in Tallahassee as if they are people.
Today is a good day for you and me.
Persimmons and acorns fall from the trees in the garden.
Whose souls live within the leaves that have fallen from those trees?
by Nancy Allinson
from What a Windstorm Teaches
Photo credit: Marco Borggreve