Ah, Venice! Fest At Carnegie Is A Feast Of Entertainments

Jordi Savall led his ensemble Hespèrion XXI in a survey of 11 centuries of Venetian music to open Carnegie Hall’s festival ‘La Serenissima, Music and Arts from the Venetian Republic.’ (Photos by Chris Lee)
By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK — Every winter, Carnegie Hall mounts a major festival devoted to the music of a given time or place. This year, through Feb. 21, “La Serenissima, Music and Arts from the Venetian Republic” brings to life the sumptuous and vibrant arts of the republic that flourished for nearly 1000 years before its conquest by Napoleon and annexation by the Kingdom of Italy in 1797.

The opening concert on Feb. 3, “The Millenarian Venice: Gateway to the East,” surveyed the history of Venice from the earliest settlement of the lagoon to annexation into the kingdom of Italy. Catalan viola da gamba player Jordi Savall led the 33-member ensemble Hespèrion XXI in an ambitious history lesson, essentially a PowerPoint presentation with musical illustrations. Subtitled “700-1797: A Crossroads Between the Orient and Europe,” it provided a seamless soundtrack to the founding of the Venetian Republic and subsequent landmark political events. The surtitles contributed brief historical notes, helping to knit together a succession of short pieces, while projected texts allowed the viewer to stay focused on the stage. That was important: the intensely curated program was like a grand tour with music, and there was much information to absorb quickly.

Savall also plays viola da gamba with Hesperion XXI.

The performance began with works illustrating the first turbulent 600 years of the Venetian settlement and its Oriental outposts. Given the virtual nonexistence of notated music from this period, Savall drew on folk traditions from the Mediterranean basin, programming instrumental songs and dances from areas along the trade routes and Byzantine chant performed by a men’s sextet, the Orthodox-Byzantine Vocal Ensemble from Greece. An ensemble of virtuoso soloists — Yurdal Tokcan (oud), Dimitri Psonis (santur), Hakan Güngör (kanun), and Haïg Sarikouyoumdjian (drums) — was gradually joined by Savall and members of Hespèrion XXI, creating substantial pieces. Instrumental improvisations provided transitions between formal numbers. Savall has previously embraced this approach to pre-notated repertoire to emphasize the porous boundaries between cultures. Here the idea that music in early Venice had a very Eastern sound was persuasive, though the development of musical styles over the centuries was hard to distinguish on first hearing.

By the end of the 13th century, more northern European music had infiltrated the mix. The strict rhythm of a conductus, sung by the men of the Capella Reial de Catalunya, sounded startlingly modern after so much improvised repertoire. After an Ottoman march, Dufay’s O tres piteulx/Omnes amici eius underlined the shock of 15th-century musical innovation. The non-stop, bullet-point descriptions of momentous historical events — conquest, trade routes, religious schisms, plague — became too much to absorb, but I was happy simply to listen to these wonderful musicians. The strongest music-making straddled intermission. Among the evening’s highlights were Janequin’s Escoutez tous gentilz, commemorating Venice’s victory at the Battle of Marignan (1515), and Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, from Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals, with its programmatic depiction of the noise of combat. Here the singers of La Capella Reial de Catalunya shone, with a special nod to the narration by the charismatic baritone Furio Zanasi.

The Orthodox-Byzantine Vocal Ensemble, from Greece, chanted.

The final third of the program was less persuasive: an undistinguished Serenata by Vivaldi and transcriptions of Mozart’s Turkish March and of Venetian carnival songs fell flat. And after two hours, yet another episode of Byzantine liturgical chant — beautiful though it was — interrupted rather than enhanced the flow of the music. The finale, 19th-century transcriptions of two movements from Beethoven symphonies, lacked conviction, or perhaps simply volume.

Part of the problem was the difficulty of filling the 2,700-seat Stern Hall with the softer sounds of early instruments. Clever scoring and the discreet use of amplification helped, though I wanted more robust forces for the 18th-century repertoire. Only in the Byzantine chant were the electronics obtrusive; the subtle echo effect wasn’t enough to reinforce the harmonies in the way a Byzantine church would have done.

While Savall’s thoughtful survey provided an enlightening contextual overview of Venice’s musical culture, several important elements of Venetian musical life received almost no attention. But many of these gaps are addressed over the next two weeks with a rich array of events taking place all over Manhattan.

For example, Vivaldi is essential to any musical survey of Venice. In 1703, the Venetian native became a violin instructor at the Ospedale della Pietà, a girls’ orphanage famous for its orchestra. The next year he wrote Juditha triumphans, a dramatic oratorio (the only one of Vivaldi’s four known oratorios to survive); he shortly thereafter became the orphanage’s music director. The Venice Baroque Orchestra performed the work on Feb. 7. Vivaldi’s virtuoso concerti will dominate an instrumental program by Il Pomo d’Oro  on Feb. 13.

The Tallis Scholars performed in the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola. (Eric Richmond)

Opera, which developed out of courtly entertainments in Mantua and Florence in the late 16th century, became a popular form in Venice. The first public opera house opened in 1637, and paying audiences supported as many as six commercial theaters, especially at Carnevale time. Il Pomo d’Oro will perform arias from 17th-century operas (Feb. 14). Handel’s Agrippina, written for the 1709 Carnevale season, will be performed by Juilliard Opera and Juilliard415 (Feb. 11, 18, 20, and 22). The festival will conclude with a concert performance of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643) by Concerto Italiano (Feb. 21).

The extraordinary acoustics of San Marco inspired composers to write antiphonal music to take advantage of the space. Far from the dry concert hall, the Romanesque Church of St. Ignatius Loyola hosted the Tallis Scholars, along with participants in a choral workshop, in a program of late renaissance polychoral works, most of which would have been heard in San Marco (Feb. 8).

Kairos Italy Theater performs proto-feminist dialogues.

Venice had a reputation for sexual tolerance. By the 17th century, Carnevale, the pre-Lenten period, lasted six months; citizens often wore masks in the street, providing cover for licentious behavior. Not only were sexual attitudes more permissive — at least in certain circles — than in Reformation Europe, but women enjoyed an unusually prominent role in cultural life. Courtesans like Barbara Strozzi, the adopted (and probably illegitimate) daughter of a nobleman poet, often developed significant artistic talents. Works by this famous singer and published composer will be featured in The Secret Lover: Women in 17th Century Italy by TENET, a New York-based vocal ensemble (Feb. 17). The Kairos Italy Theater will perform The Worth of Women, a proto-feminist series of dialogues by Moderata Fonte, a remarkably accomplished writer and philosopher. (Feb. 11)

The musicians of Venice had enormous influence on composers throughout Europe. The vocal ensemble Gallicantus will devote an evening to Venetian funeral laments and English imitators (Feb. 11), and Hespèrion XXI will offer canzonas and dances for strings by composers from all over the continent and England (Feb. 12).

Plays about Venetian themes or by Venetian authors include a pared-down version of Shakespeare’s Othello (Feb. 8-19) and a commedia dell’arte fantasy, The Serpent Woman, by Carlo Gozzi (Feb. 10-19), both performed by the Juilliard drama department. A staging of memoirs by the 18th-century literary giant Carlo Goldoni will be performed by Kairos Italy Theater (Feb. 9).

For the complete Venetian experience, there’s even a Carnevale Commedia Ball, a lavish, bawdy revel combining dance, opera, circus, and burlesque (dinner optional) in a gilded ballroom in Brooklyn (Feb. 11-12).

Armchair browsers who can’t get to New York may access a Tumblr blog launched by the Frick Museum with short entries about all things Venetian. The Corning Glass Museum offers a look at the exquisite art of hand-blown glass, once an exclusive and jealously guarded Venetian industry — the glass blowing videos are hypnotically soothing. An interactive Google gallery devoted to the Ca’ Rezzonico provides a virtual tour of this splendid 18th-century Grand Canal palazzo, one of the best preserved in Venice.

For more information on these and other presentations, venues, videos, and ticketing, click here.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!