4×4 Baroque Music Festival at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on Tuesday, September 1.
The raw emotion of Baroque songs takes you by surprise if you’re expecting “classical” music to be prim and refined. Composers of the era often strove to convey just one intense feeling in an individual work, so a song would be given over to undiluted passion, or sorrow, or bitterness, or agony—especially agony. The poetry the composers set was well suited to this single-minded aesthetic, feverishly so, with translated lines such as “Alas, foolish, blind world! alas, cruel fate,” and “I’ll drink my own fatal tears, and I’ll always be the most heartbroken of all abandoned lovers,” and “I wish the abysses to see my suffering, and the furies to weep at my bitter lamenting, and that even the damned souls will concede my torment is greater.” See? Agony. Apparently Baroque poets were the emo kids of their day.
The two soprano soloists who performed at the Scherzi Musicali program, featuring songs by Claudio Monteverdi, perfectly handled all that Baroque craziness, vividly conveying the passion, and sorrow, and bitterness, and agony—especially agony—with deliciously theatrical fervor without ever sacrificing the beauty of their voices. Such a sacrifice would have been unacceptable, for Jolle Greenleaf and Molly Quinn have exquisite voices. Their ornamentation had that light, seemingly effortless quality that I so envy, and in their duets, their radiant bell tones blended so well that it was hard to belief two separate beings were producing them.
Inevitably, the vocalists overshadowed the musicians of the accompanying ensemble, so I was happy that they, too, had their chance to shine, playing Venetian instrumental music from the early 1600s. Comprising a harpsichord and a theorbo (a hilariously long-necked lute) as well as a cello, a harp, a guitar, and a pair of violins, the ensemble had a crisp, light sound and a great sense of rhythm, brilliantly showcased in the last set, a collection of pieces with lively dance syncopations.
But Greenleaf and Quinn were the stars. The acoustics of the midtown church where they performed set their voices aloft beautifully, and together the setting, the vocalists, and their talented accompanists made the baroque music reverberate with life. I’m well aware that you probably have to be pretty dorky to get into this kind of thing, but honestly: those elegant parallel thirds, the chains of suspension and resolution, the graceful melodic lines, the resonant strings—if you’re not this dorky, it’s your loss.