Portland Conservatory of Music
Early Music Festival
Woodford’s Church, Portland
Oct. 30. 2016
by Christopher Hyde
The Portland Conservatory of Music’s Early Music Festival (Oct. 28, 29 and 30), now in its fifth year, continues to attract talented performers and ever larger audiences. Its Sunday afternoon concert, featuring Monteverdi’s “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” and music from the court of Henry VIII, exemplified both trends.
“To whose more clear than crystal voice the frost had joined a crystal spell.” I thought of Leonie Adams’ line during soprano Anna Schwartzberg’s singing of “I love, loved,“ by Robert Fayrfax (1464-1521). But everything attempted by the Bowdoin Chamber Choir, under Robert Greenlee, was well sung, by both soloists and full chorus.
Amour seems to have been the principal pastime of both the monarch and his court, if the songs from that era are any indication. Like Shakespeare’s in-jokes, they are full of double entendres that now reveal themselves only to scholars but were probably common parlance at the time.
The first song, “Pastime with Good Company,” written and set to music by Henry himself, can be read two ways; an encomium to a good husband is interrupted by clucking chickens, and even the long and lively final work, “El Fuego,” about the Virgin providing water to put out the fires of sin, has its sly moments.
Greenlee has worked with the singers to clearly deliniate parts in the polyphonic works, and to clarify diction enough to make verses understandable. The dynamics were impeccable.
The instrumental accompaniments and interludes were also outstanding, with sufficient volume to balance the choir.
The Monteverdi “Combattimento” was equally well sung and played by members of the St. Mary Schola under Bruce Fithian, who directed a chamber orchestra of period instruments from the harpsichord.
The drama, which is a masque rather than an opera, was the first major work to use music to describe action, in this case the combat between a crusader, Tancredi, and a Muslim knight, Clorinda, who happens to be a woman. She loses the battle and is saved by baptism as she expires. The primary singing role is that of the narrator, or Testo, sung by Martin Lescault. Tancredi, Paul McGovern, and Clorinda, Molly Harmon, have relatively minor singing parts, but mime the scenes described by the narrator.
The action is carried forward by the instrumental music. It is hard to believe that sixteenth notes, depicting swords striking steel, were considered revolutionary at the time. That is the primary obstacle to overcome in hearing the masque: putting ourselves in the role of an audience hearing the piece for he first time. Unless the intended feelings can be conveyed, the exercise becomes more educational than emotional. The battle scenes seem tame to modern ears attuned to movie scores, but the tenderer moments, as when Tancredi discovers his true love under his opponent’s visor, still have magic, as does Tasso’s poetry.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.