Reviews

NYC Performances  |  Touring with Mark Morris  |  ARTEK on Tour

The Triumph of Monteverdi's Madrigals Berkeley Festival and Exhibition
By Anna Carol Dudley

And the winner is ... Claudio Monteverdi! He was well-served Saturday night in a Berkeley Festival performance at that city's First Congregational Church. ARTEK (from The Art of the Early Keyboard), a New York based ensemble of six singers and seven players of plucked and bowed strings, gave magnificent voice to Monteverdi's Fifth Book of Madrigals. Harpsichordist Gwendolyn Toth, ARTEK's founding director, framed the music with 16th- and 17th-century publications and letters, from which she and the singers read effective speakers, all.

Monteverdi's compositional style had been attacked for its violations of established rules of music theory by Giovanni Maria Artusi, and Monteverdi defended himself by announcing a new approach to the traditional style: the words governing the harmony rather than vice versa, resulting in expressive use of dissonance and counterpoint. The Fifth Book of Madrigals, as performed by the outstanding musicians of ARTEK, is a stunning vindication of the composer. The words are mostly by Giovanni Battista Guarini, whose love poetry inspired musical settings by many composers. Monteverdi set the poems as five-part madrigals, and the ARTEK singers sang, in both solo and ensemble passages, with passionate intensity. Listeners did not need translations to hear that these singers were in complete command of the verbal, and the musical grammar and meaning. (Still, I felt sorry for members of the audience who had not provided themselves with the Festival Reader, which included texts and program notes.)

The program was beautifully arranged, having been grouped into five segments, with the central portion following the narrative of Guarini's famous epic poem, Il pastor fido (The faithful shepherd). The first and fifth groups, except for a couple of anonymous texts, were settings of other poetry by Guarini. Some groups were accompanied by the excellent continuo players, some were a cappella. An ensemble of six singers is necessary for the five-part madrigals because Monteverdi employs them in various combinations sometimes using one soprano or tenor, sometimes two, sometimes with no alto. One singer is always left out (except for the bass, who, if paid for the number of notes sung, would get a nice bonus).

The six singers in this performance, gifted both vocally and expressively, were sopranos Laura Heimes and Barbara Hollinshead, alto countertenor Ryland Angel, tenors Philip Anderson and Michael Brown, and bass-baritone Peter Becker.

Monteverdi really got grooving in the program's last set of madrigals. Textures were varied sometimes five singers, sometimes duets with trio refrains and forms grew increasingly complex, as repetition was used for dramatic effect. Monteverdi gave T'amo, mia vita (I love you, you my life) a poem also set by other composers an extraordinary setting. The instruments provided colorful continuo support, and the first soprano sang the title line. The men followed with other lines, and the soprano kept returning to "T'amo, mia vita." All ended together on the five-part setting of "T'amo, mia vita" la mia vita sia (Let "I love you, my life" be my life).

The concert ended with a six-part madrigal, E cosi poco a poco (And so, little by little), which featured solos, duets, a trio refrain, and everybody joining in on the final refrain: "chi spegne antico incendio il fa immortale" (whoever puts out an old blaze makes it eternal). You never forget your first love.

Anna Carol Dudley is a singer, teacher, UC Berkeley faculty emerita, San Francisco State University lecturer emerita, and director emerita of the San Francisco Early Music Society's Baroque Music Workshop.'
 

NYC Performances


"Madrigals and Vignettes for Ariadne Abandoned - The Artek period instrument ensemble has devoted itself to finding fresh ways to present the early music repertory. Often its greatest surprises have been purely musical, functions of the way the familiar and the undeservedly obscure have been juxtaposed in its programs. But the group and its director, Gwendolyn Toth, have also been thinking in increasingly theatrical terms. A production of Monteverdi's "Orfeo" moved Artek onto the stage, and a collaboration with the Mark Morris Dance Company in 1997 transformed a group of Monteverdi madrigals into an evening of dance under the title I Don't Want to Love. Artek's latest project, I'll Never See the Stars Again, which opened on Tuesday at the Mazer Theater (197 East Broadway, at Jefferson Street, Lower East Side) and runs through tonight, is in the same spirit. Monteverdi madrigals are again at the heart of the production, a series of tableaus about the joys and travails of love, directed by Martin Platt. The musical centerpiece is the "Lamento d'Arianna," an intensely dramatic cycle of madrigals that convey Ariadne's desolation after she is abandoned by her lover, Theseus, on the island of Naxos. In Mr. Platt's staging, the four dark-hued madrigals of the Lamento are separated by other, generally brighter Monteverdi madrigals, as well as instrumental works mostly by Monteverdi's contemporaries (with a few decidedly more recent interpolations, among them the Promenade from Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition). The first of the Lamento madrigals, Lasciatemi morire, is used as a frame: at the start of the evening a group of Italian postwar refugees file onto the stage during a particularly affecting rendering of the piece, and at the end, Lasciatemi morire is repeated as the refugees pick up their valises and leave. The other sections of the Lamento offer a stark view of its theme of abandonment. As the vocal ensemble sings, unaccompanied, from a balcony to the side of the stage, two of the immigrants mutely enact an updated version of Ariadne's vain attempt to prevent Theseus's departure. Between these stark scenes, Monteverdi's works accompany comic romantic fantasies based loosely (very loosely) on suggestions in the madrigal texts. Una donna fra l'altre, for example, is about being transfixed by a woman 'sincere and fair,' seen dancing among other women. Mr. Platt's version moves the action to a church, where one of the congregants is so drawn to a quietly praying woman that he disrupts the service with a series of increasingly desperate attempts to be near her. The vignettes are entertaining, and if his approach isn't necessarily the best way to hear Monteverdi (there is really nothing wrong with straight performances of the madrigals) it certainly does the music no violence, particularly in Artek's solid, deftly turned performances. The vocal cast included Jessica Tranzillo and Barbara Hollinshead, sopranos; Philip Anderson and Michael Brown, tenors; and Paul Shipper, bass. An ensemble that included violin, viola da gamba, recorder and several varieties of lute and guitar was conducted from the harpsichord by Ms. Toth, who also played the silent role of Ariadne. (Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 1/24/03)

"Plays need Reimagining, Not Merely Reviving - The Brooklyn Academy of Art has led the way with new work that integrates theater, music, dance, art and technology. But smaller organizations are doing their part with gusto and great skill. Last fall the excellent early-music group Artek turned a group of Monteverdi madrigals into an enchanting theater piece." (Margo Jefferson, The New York Times, 5/16/03)

"Terpsichore Graces a Rare Cantata - "Another modest New York tradition may have been born on Thursday evening, when the Artek Baroque Orchestra presented a staged version of Alessandro Stradella's Christmas cantata Ah! troppo e ver at the Kaye Playhouse. Couple with concertos by Arcangelo Corelli and Giuseppe Tartini, it made for perhaps the most enterprising seasonal concert of the year. Artek, a 10-year-old period instrument group directed by Gwendolyn Toth, a keyboardist, gave a good, solid account of the cantata." (James Oestreich, The New York Times, 12/31/94)

"Both concerts gave ample scope to Monteverdi's gracious lyricism, in fluid solos, and to his contrapuntal mastery, in well-balanced ensembles. But what lingers in the memory is those glorious ravishing vocal duets: Pur ti miro at the end of Incoronazione…All the performances held a listener rapt with their spirit, conviction and intelligence." (James Oestreich, The New York Times, 2/16/93)

"For its concert of German Baroque music at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on Sunday evening, the Artek Ensemble manged to devise a Christmas program that did not seem the least bit strained or cloying. The selected works, by Schein, Praetorius, Schütz, Tunder, Sweelinck and Weckmann, would make sense no matter what the season. And the performances, under the direction of Gwendolyn Toth, had a youthful flair, even a certain sensuality, that stood out in a season of routine ritual." (Alex Ross, The New York Times, 12/31/92)

"In her enterprising Art of the Early Keyboard series, now in its fifth season, Gwendolyn Toth has been offering a democratic view of the keyboard literature. Her programs typically include not only solo works for organ, harpsichord, or piano, but also pieces in which the keyboard is used as a chamber partner or an accompanying instrument. She also invariably strikes a good balance between familiar music and oddities that seem worthy of revival. In the installment she presented on Wednesday evening at St. Michael's Church, Ms. Toth concentrated on chamber music of the Classical era, and played a modern copy of a 1790 Stein fortepiano. Her colleagues also played on period instruments. Ms. Toth's one solo offering was Haydn's Sonata in E minor (Hob. XVI:34), one of the five minor-key works among Haydn's 52 sonatas. Ms. Toth played it with the subtlety and gracefulness it demands. The most striking aspect of her playing, both here and in the chamber pieces, was its entirely pianistic sense of shape. This is a quality not easily drawn from the delicate fortepiano, and Ms. Toth achieved it by turning the instrument's dynamic and coloristic restrictions to her advantage." (Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 6/1/90)

Touring with Mark Morris

"You would have to look a long way to find as fluid a piece of choreography as I Don't Want to Love which opened last night's programme, and as delicate an interpretation. The music, a courtly setting of 17th-century madrigals by Monteverdi, seemed to float effortlessly around the auditorium. No matter that you didn't understand the Italian words, so beguiling was the live performance from the ARTEK ensemble." (Thom Dibdin, Edinburgh Evening News, 10/30/01)

"The madrigal lyrics, translated from the Italian in the printed program, speak mainly of the torments of love. I Don't Want to Love means, of course, its opposite. The title piece introduces the dancers (Joe Bowie, Charlton Boyd, Shawn Gannon, Marianne Moore, Rachel Murray, Mireille Radwan-Dana, and Julie Worden). They are dressed in Isaac Mizrahi's white play clothes. Michaekl Chybowski's ever-fine lighting singles out one couple, then a high-flying ensemble as Gwendolyn Toth leads the way with the 458 Strings ensemble, which includes Grant Herreid, Astrid Nielsch and Richard Stone. The pastoral lyrics of the third song follow up on images of angst (fingers splayed, fists shaking) and a plea to have pain erased. The ARTEK Singers (Jeffrey Thomas, Michael Brown, Paul Shipper, and Eileen Clark Reisner) are wonderfully expressive here as elsewhere." (Anna Kisselgoff, The New York Times, 4/19/97)

"The second of the Brooklyn programs by the Mark Morris Dance Group features the smooth revival of his ambitious yet stylistically flawed work to Vivaldi, Gloria, as well as the New York premiere of I Don't Want to Love. The latter, 'Non voglio amare,' is part of the set of Monteverdi madrigals, published posthumously in 1651, eight years after the composer's death and immediately before his almost two centuries of total oblivion. It is beautiful, sensuous music, vibrantly given here by early music specialists, led by Gwendolyn Toth." (Clive Barnes, The New York Post, 4/19/97)

"The other New York premiere of Morris's season, presented on his second program, was the playful I Don't Want to Love (1996), ironically titled because that's precisely what its protesting characters do want. Set to seven Monteverdi madrigals, charmingly performed by the ARTEK Singers and 458 Strings, the seven dancers, in a variety of white, chic, and shaggy costumes by Isaac Mizrahi, declare their supposed aversion to love with arm-sweeping gestures..." (Amanda Smith, Dance Magazine, 8/97)

"As always, a chief reward of a Morris program is the music, performed live by an intimate group of gifted musicians. This weekend was no exception. Philip Anderson, Michael Brown, Paul Shipper and Clark were the fine singers of the Monteverdi madrigals in I Don't Want to Love, while Gwendolyn Toth accompanied them on harpsichord." (Sarah Kaufman, Washington Post, 2/17/02)

"This week marks the premiere of a 1996 Morris work, I Don't Want to Love, a lyrical expression of movement and pure joy performed to the music of Claudio Monteverdi. And such music! The ARTEK Singers (tenors Philip Anderson and Michael Brown, bass Paul Shipper, and guest soprano Eileen Clark-Reisner) were richly accompanied by 458 Strings with Gwendolyn Toth on harpsichord, Paul Shipper on guitar, and Daniel Swenberg on the orbo [sic] which looks like a giant lute." (Mary Grace Butler, The Berkshire Eagle, 6/27/97)

"The recent I Don't Want to Love, set to a selection of Monteverdi madrigals (solidly performed by the ARTEK Singers and 458 Strings) unfolds like a series of ardent songs about the suffering of love." (Karen Campbell, Boston Herald, 11/21/97)

"First of all, he's serious about music. One of Morris's trademarks is his dedication to the integrity of the music he uses, and he uses live music whenever possible. In I Don't Want to Love, Morris' troupe is accompanied by two early music groups, the ARTEK Signers and 458 Strings. These groups perform a selection of madrigals, or short love poems from the 17th century...In choosing the music he works with, the first criteria he goes by, he pronouces sarcastically, is 'I have to like it.' And after that hurdle is cleared, 'There's lots of music that I love but I'm not particularly interested in dancing to, and other things that make a good dance, but it's not like the greatest piece ever written. It also depends on musical forces, what I can tour with, who I want to work with. The size of things, if it's a big orchestral piece or chamber or vocal or whatever, depends on what I want and who I get.' He heard the ARTEK Singers perform Monteverdi's Orfeo some years ago and thought they were great. So he sought them out to accompany I Don't Want to Love, and they are part of the entourage he brings to Boston this year." (Christie Taylor, The TAB, 11/24/97)

ARTEK on Tour

Regensburg Tage Alter Music Festival, June 2003 - "The Italian madrigalists -- at least in their own minds -- have died a thousand deaths, they have suffered torturous pain, and the words they set the most often must be "morire," "sofrire," or "dolor."…Dramatic gifts characterize the New York musicians of "Artek," and always add a certain lightness to the seriousness of their music-making. Even in the difficult polyphonic version of the famous "Lamento d'Arianna" the individual characterizations by the singers can be heard, but without the whole becoming less than the sum of the parts. Of course they also grasp the theatrical and often ironical gesture which differentiates many of the chosen Monteverdi madrigals from those of Gesualdo. It was delicious how the three men sank into blind action, but then submitted to the "deadly fire" all the more willingly. Philip Anderson is the better of the two tenors, Michael Brown the funnier one, who delivered a wonderful pastoral battle of words with Barbara Hollinshead. Jessica Tranzillo offered us the beguiling lament of a nymph, and together the two ladies, with a coquettish attitude, succumbed to the temptations of pompous declarations of love. Finally, Paul Shipper, a regular at the Tage-Alter-Musik, proved himself in the final Chiccona by Tarquinio Merula to be a veritable miracle of the coloratura bass. As always, Gwendolyn Toth at the harpsichord, with her delicate instinct for programmatic detours, kept the bass pattern of Monteverdi's "Zefiro torna," to which her accompaniment joined in so breezily, going along. Justified ovations for this marvelous Sunday morning in St. Oswald's church." (Juan Martin Koch, Mittelbayerische Zeitung, 6/11/03)

Boston Early Music Festival, June 2003 - "ARTEK is a Baroque chamber ensemble of flexible membership; the spotlight was on Boston Baroque violinist Robert Mealy, who topped off three hours of playing in the festival opera with an hour's extra work. This program, too, contextualized Bach, with works by Johann Philipp Krieger, Dietrich Buxtehude, and Philipp Heinrich Erlebach. Mealy plays on a smaller scale than Carmignola but with imagination, taste, subtlety, and daring; he certainly had equal partners in Lisa Terry (gamba), Gwendolyn Toth (harpsichord and organ), and Daniel Swenberg (lute). Agile and accurate soprano Jessica Tranzillo chimed in for a Krieger cantata. The program also featured instruments unusual even for the BEMF: the bass lute (the long-necked gallichone) and the lautenwerk, a harpsichord with gut strings that produces an unexpected and ravishingly mellow timbre." (Richard Dyer, Boston Globe, 6/13/2003)

"Late nights goings on - ARTEK, the New York-based group founded by keyboard virtuoso Gwendolyn Toth, opened the late night concerts on Wednesday in Emmanuel Church, one of Boston's most beautiful, not only because of its English Gothic architecture but also because of its illustrious history of musical presentations…Krieger (the elder), Erlebach, Buxtehude, and J.S. Bach were ARTEK's chosen composers. Krieger's cantata Surgite cum gaudio isn't a piece one is likely to hear elsewhere, but thanks to soprano Jessica Tranzillo's lively performance, it probably won't be forgotten, either, by those lucky enough to be in the audience." (Gary Freeman, Early Music America, 9/03)

"The Mississippi Academy of Ancient Music presented ARTEK, in a program of songs entitled Songs of Love and War. This early music ensemble from New York specializes in music from the Baroque period…All of the instrumentalists were highly skilled, whether accompanying singers or playing solo and ensemble music for instruments. The singers, however, really stole the show on this evening. Their pronunciation and articulation was impeccable, but it was their dramatic presentation which really added so much to the concert. The tenors, Philip Anderson and Michael Brown, had some wonderful moments - perhaps the best in the first half of the concert occurred in "Si tra sdegnosi pianti" from Monteverdi's Lamento della Ninfa when the tenors and bass, Paul Shipper, finished the song a capella. This was truly stunning…The audience seemed to approve, giving ARTEK a standing ovation. Of all the concerts presented by MA'AM during the 1999-2000 season this may have been the best, simply because it was so unexpected. Many times the music from this period seems less accessible and certainly less familiar to most. Yet, ARTEK was able to make it come alive. The performed not only played and sang well, but they conveyed the emotional state of each song realistically and convincingly. It would be a pleasure to have ARTEK perform in Jackson again!" (Frank T. Laney, The Continuo, Jackson, Mississippi, 9/00)

Regensburg Tage Alter Musik Festival, 1998 - "The level of mastery of the sources and technical superiority on display in Regensburg was so high that choosing a favorite becomes a matter of personal preference. My choice is Artek - 458 Strings, a New York group led by the organist Gwendolyn Toth. Although it is twelve years old, this group, entirely unknown in Europe, is still an inside tip. You had to be there to believe how stylishly the eight musicians, in an ensemble of bowed and plucked strings, breathed life into the dry-as-dust program title Virtuoso ornamentation and improvisation in the music of the 17th and 18th centuries in Spain, Italy, and England." (Nürnberger Zeitung)

"Things were quite different with ARTEK and their virtuoso chamber music of the baroque, which honored the basso continuo tradition…The total of playable strings among the instruments, 458, must have generated the name of Artek - 458 Strings from New York, directed by Gwendolyn Toth, which appeared here for the first time in Europe. The topic is virtuosic ornamentation and improvisation in the music of the 17th and 18th centuries in Spain, Italy, and England. Here the musicians' mannered playing and the ever-changing musical formal language in grand basso continuo and vocal parts came back with a vengeance as far as flamenco and tango. This is early music alive for today." (Musica Sacra, Juli/August 1998)

"Artek 458 Strings, a group from New York whose concert was called Virtuoso ornamentation and improvisation in the music of the 17th and 18th centuries in Spain, Italy, and England, is really a single big continuo group…For the first half of the concert in the Reichssaal, at least, a real staging had been developed. Beginning with Frescobaldi, imperceptible transitions continuing led through Monteverdi's madrigals Su, su, su pastorella and Zefiro torna to a chiccona by Tarquinio Merula which began with a bare bass line. More and more musicians joined in, again and again new instruments from the rich store were added, and at the end Paul Shipper's velvety bass and Jessica Tranzillo's well-done soprano sang with great virtuosity." (Mittelbayerische Zeitung, 6/2/98)

"Spiritual and Joyful - The concert by Artek 458 Strings, also from New York (direction: Gwendolyn Toth) led to another world. Their goal was to present basso continuo music of the 17th-18th centuries in virtuoso improvisation. They offered a massive arsenal of instruments: altogether it came to 458 strings, and you could hear it. Harp, guitar, lute, etc. spelled each other in accompaniment and lines, and the artists revealed themselves to be proficient in musical joy in playing and marvellous improvisatory ability. The basso-continuo arias Se l'aura spira (Frescobaldi), Su, su, su pastorella and Zefiro torna (Monteverdi) were spiced with individualistic ritornelli; sometimes the singers accompanied themselves. In general, composition and improvisation are based on the dance melodies or ground basses like passamezzo, passacaglia, folia and ciacona. As the group plays, new instruments are added or subtracted after every round, so that finally a massively percussive chordal spectacle arises. Things were so relaxed that a scherzo by Monteverdi suddenly turned into Franz Schubert's Trout." (Landshuter Zeitung/Staubinger Tagblatt, 6/2/98)

"On the other hand, also in the Reichssaal, the members of Artek - 458 strings celebrated partly improvised vocal and instrumental music. Two pieces with a similar ground bass fused into a medley, just like in jazz; three lutenists carried things rousingly to a head in the manner of three famous guitarists (à la Friday night in San Francisco), or serious fun was had under the title "Scherzi musicali", as a quotation from Monteverdi's Orfeo and even Schubert's Trout song were incorporated into pieces by Monteverdi." (Mälzels Magazin, Juli 1998)

"…connoisseurs saw the Tage Alte Musik as a top venue for early music, featuring the humorous musical tour-de-force of a nimble group from New York, Artek-458 Strings" (Mittelbayerische Zeitung, 6/2/98)

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