L’Arpeggiata

L’Arpeggiata

Music for a While
Baroque Jazz – Improvisations on Henry Purcell

Saturday 18 March 2017, 7:30pm, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Presented by Chamber Music New Zealand

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

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Christina Pluhar, theorbo and musical direction
Céline Scheen, soprano
Vincenzo Capezzuto, alto
Gianluigi Trovesi, clarinet
Doron Sherwin, cornetto
Veronika Skuplik, Baroque violin
Eero Palviainen, Baroque guitar and archlute
Sergey Saprichev, percussion
Boris Schmidt, double bass
Francesco Turrisi, piano
Haru Kitamika, harpsichord

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The short story:

We were promised a concert of the music of Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and his contemporaries with a Jazz flavour, and L’Arpeggiata delivered this performance par excellence with virtuoso playing. This concert – and this ensemble – have reached a new level of distinction. The performing was superb, the programming was outstanding, and the music was sublime. Henry would have approved!

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The long story: 

The notion of mixing musical genres is not new, but the results can be debatable: successful – Jacques Louissier, Claude Bolling, Turtle Island (String) Quartet or Kronos Quartet; or unsuccessful – listen to Kiri te Kanawa singing Gershwin’s Summertime, for example.

Almost all of the music featured a harmonic or rhythmic pattern. In Baroque terms, this is a basso ostinato or a ground bass. In Jazz terms, this is a riff. The designation can be different, but the results are the same.

The ground bass should be provided by a ‘rhythm section’ – chordal instruments, bass instruments and percussion. This ground bass or riff pleads for some melody instruments to make sense of their construction – so, cue the opportunity of improvising soloists.

The instrumentation of L’Arpeggiata provided a juxtaposition of instruments – some harking back to the Baroque period, and some more modern and more jazz orientated.

On the first hand: the Baroque rhythm section consisted of therobo and archlute (super-guitars – impressive beasts too), a Baroque guitar and harpsichord. On the other hand, modern version was provided by double bass and keyboard (piano, electric keyboard, and a mouth-driven melodica on steroids!).
The percussion was ancient and modern as their wont: cymbals, tambourines, rain sticks and some variety of African djembe.

The melody instruments: Baroque – violin (in a Baroque style), cornetto (a straight, wooden instrument – like a cornet crossed with a oboe, with a cupped mouthpiece); Modern:  piano as a melody instrument, and alto clarinet. And the singers: soprano and male alto.

Each of the sections – Baroque and modern – borrowed from each other. Mostly the Baroque rhythm section established the ground, and the violin, cornetto and singers followed suit with the melody and all manner of improvising. Then, a third of the way through in the piece the keyboard, double bass, and alto clarinet would arrive with a an alteration in the harmonies, blues notes and bends, jazzy rhythms and playful interplays. The percussion section wove through the piece melding the genres together.

The programming was spot on – from despair to joyfulness, from grandeur to poignancy. Most of the pieces followed each other with no break, but Christina Pluhar recognised the need for some applause when needed.

By the fourth piece, the audience realised (‘Classically’ trained, to be sure) that they can applaud soloists in the middle of the piece. But, there was not much of that after all – every piece deserved many applauses and I think the audience didn’t want to miss hearing anything out of the programme – that speaks a lot about the subtlety and the nuance of the arrangements.

The singers were remarkable. Céline Scheen, the soprano, appeared effortless – her breath control was magnificent, her tone was crystalline and her subtle dynamic was breathtaking. In Ah, Belinda, and When I am Laid (both from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas) her coda was al niente – fading away to nothing. The audience was on tenterhooks, listening for the last note possible.
The male alto, Vincenzo Capezzuto, was delightful. He was almost like a cabaret or vauderville act. ‘Twas within a furlong of Edinborough Town and Man is for woman made (with the innuendos well-made) were humorous and cheeky. His resonant tone was phenomenal. It seemed he had a extra microphone boosting his sound – I almost looked for the ventriloquist, lip-syncing his songs!

The instruments were virtuosos in their own right. I wondered about the alto clarinet – why not a saxophone? – but I was answered repeatably with so many solos in the 17 piece of the programme. From the second pice, Music for a While (and a subtitle of the concert) the alto clarinet was outstanding and in La Dia Spagnola his bends and lipping were outrageous.

Most of the instruments let rip in a instrumental piece called Canario. The ground bass was only one bar, but the soloists multiplied with two, four, eight phrases. The rapidity of the cornetto notes were amazing, the pianist swapped with a over-size melodica, and the alto clarinet use his full range like Bobby McFerrin singing – bass, alto and tenor intermingled. The percussionist  made his drums talk – literally. He intoned the rhythm pattern with his voice, and translated that to his drums – something like a Indian tabla player in rehearsal. In the next piece he almost went overboard – a real vauderville act with two giant tambourines – acrobatic, gymnastic. It was a little bit over the top, but it was fun – and the audience lapped it up.

Sometimes I forgot the therobo, archlute and harpsichord. They provided most of the basso ostinato and I was aware of them at times almost like a cicada-sound in summer landscape.  Particularly, the harpsichord could have more amplification or presence.

I wondered if the use of the basso ostinato would be too indistinguishable – a sameness for each piece, that each piece would be a copy. I shouldn’t have worried – Henry Purcell was a master of this device. Each ground bass was so different – 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 bars, some in duple time, some in triple time. And his capacity of the infinite variety of invention was  peerless. Sometimes the melody carried on above the ground bass dovetailing in to another position in the ground, sometimes it seemed to change key (even if the ground did not). This was evident in the penultimate  piece in the programme, O, Let me forever weep – the most Baroque piece in the concert, with the soprano and the Baroque violin taking prominent turns and weaving their way about the melody.

The audience responded to the concert with sustained applause and a standing ovation. The ensemble acknowledged with two encores: Pokarekare ana, sweetly sung by both vocalists, and a joyful dancing romp, with a turn from the staid cornetto player as a jazz cat with sunglasses and beanie. It capped the night off. The enjoyment and the enthusiasm of the performers were matched from the audience.

It was simply fun – and Henry would be delighted!

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