Review: Ensemble VIII’s “Love Songs From Italy”
Ensemble VIII’s fans attend the group’s Renaissance & Baroque concerts in search of something pristine, and that’s usually what they get.
At the finale of its third season, Ensemble VIII continues to deliver on its premise of importing interpreters from around the country to put on intimate concerts specializing in sacred music.
But the Saturday matinee concert of Italian love songs at St. Louis Catholic Church had this most serious ensemble letting its hair down a little, and relaxing its sharp focus on the soul-wrenching, in exchange for music that’s cheerier — a little bubbly, even.
Not that Ensemble VIII lets its guard down, even in moments of levity. Artistic Director James Morrow (singing bass and occasionally conducting here) acquires singers and players who make every accent and chord a musical one.
The male singers all sang beautifully, but the spotlight really shined on New York soprano Jolle Greenleaf. Her tone is clean and even, but she also comes with a few modern stylistic additions — namely, a kind of lilt that has her bending towards the pitch, a sound that’s heard more often in pop-music.
And it’s an extremely nice fit in the music of Monteverdi — and these Italian love songs in general — with their breathless (and fairly chaste) lyrics.
“Pour upon my heart/a cloud of sparks,” goes one line.
Another might even slide into a pop song: “You will not receive from those lips/Kisses as sweet as mine,/Nor softer. Oh, don’t speak!/Don’t speak! You know better than that!”
Oh, the drama! Obviously Greenleaf’s onto something here. The closest comparison I can make is to composer David Lang’s “Death Speaks,” whose singer, Shara Worden of the indie band My Brightest Diamond has a similarly pleading, sad quality.
This was a rewarding visit into secular territory, and Greenleaf’s movements on stage was almost worthy of musical-theater, which helped communicate the joy and pain of the texts.
Another discovery was the music of Philippe Verdelot, a Frenchman who, in 1521, was appointed to lead the choir at the cathedral in Florence. His madrigals had a light, effervescent touch.
Many of these compositions still hit that point of sublime beauty. The dark Renaissance chord progressions appear, of course, but occasionally we hear something that’s more middle eastern than Italian, which gives this music an (even more) exotic flavor.
Some of the more subdued works tended to drag. The first half gave a little more contrast between light and dark, and when the music lightened after intermission, some of that gravity went with it.
The male voices, Morrow (bass), Donald Meineke (tenor) and Ryland Angel (very nice countertenor) were robust both as soloists, and accompaniment, as they traded places with Greenleaf. The singers were backed on gamba, organ and the theorbo (the almost absurdly long-necked lute).