Sacred music meets profane tech

BEIRUT: Al Bustan came down from the mountain Monday evening. The concert at St. Joseph Jesuit Church was one of three sea-level shows featuring composers from the Italian baroque, performed in a church setting.

The Jesuits hosted the first of two evenings with period instrument ensemble Accademia Bizantina, under the direction of principal violinist Alessandro Tampieri.

Monday’s was a well-selected two-set program of sacred music devoted to Mary (the Virgin), each prefaced by profane works by Scarlatti. (The Bizantines’ delivery of “Sinfonia il Trionfo della Vergine assunta in Cielo,” the opening number, was brisk and they sprinted through “Sinfonia l’Assunzione della Beata Vergine.”)

After its shot glass of Scarlatti, the ensemble was joined by mezzo Monica Piccinini for a performance of Pergolesi’s “Salve Regina per soprano.” It was the less-known of the Pergolesi works on offer this evening and the relatively rare performance was refreshing.

Piccinini’s interpretation was notable for her composed clarity of tone and the moderation of her phrasing, applying ornamental flourishes sparingly, ascending the scale to a high C so delicate it was at times virtually whispered.

After a bit of instrument adjustment (baroque strings being fond for sliding out of tune), Tampieri and his ensemble welcomed contralto Delphine Galou for her version of “Salve Regina per alto,” by Pergolesi’s older contemporary Nicola Porpora.

Performances of Porpora’s work aren’t exactly common in Beirut, so Accademia Bizantina’s rendition was a treat. Embracing the audience expressively, Galou’s robust interpretation of the material was much more theatrical than that of Piccinini, her ornamented improvisations more incessant. By the time the interval arrived, Accademia Bizantina had set the scene very well, introducing a pair of less-known baroque works along with two vocalists of different techniques. The audience’s appetite for the “Stabat Mater” was piqued.

His best-known work, Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” is among dozens of works of this title written by some of the great composers of the European canon. All trace their lineage to a 13th-century Latin hymn to Jesus’ mother at the crucifixion.

The power of the hymn and its array of derivatives, from composers as diverse as John Browne (1453-circa 1500) and Arvo Part (born 1935), hinges on the universal agony of a parent forced to watch a child expire.

Pergolesi’s version of the hymn has become of favorite of old-music ensembles and their audiences, the composition’s beauty complemented, perhaps, by its placement in the composer’s biography.

“Stabat Mater” was completed a couple of months before Pergolesi died of tuberculosis, at the age of 26. In the work’s more energetic scoring - the show-stopping 10th verse “Fac, ut ardeat cor meum” (Grant that my heart may burn), reiterated during the final “Amen” - some have projected the composer’s presumed anger at his impending death.

After its second soupcon of Scarlatti, Accademia Bizantina moved immediately to the opening duet of “Stabat Mater.”

The vocalists remained true to their preferred phrasings throughout the performance and on the whole they complemented each other nicely, though Galou’s muscular adornments momentarily overwhelmed a duet or two.

The most demanding of the work’s duets, “Grant that my heart may burn” happened to be the point at which the two voices found most complementarity something the audience seems to have recognized by bursting into applause when it was done. So successful was this duet, in fact, that Maestro Tampieri and the vocalists performed it a second time as an encore.

Period instrument performances generally have a signature moment.

Often it’s an eccentricity related to the slippery tuning of the strings, or the late-digestion blarts that can issue from baroque horns. Sometimes someone in the first-class disrupts a delicate solo with his (or her) snoring.

The signature moment of “Stabat Mater” came just before the contralto solo “Eia, mater, fons amoris” (Mother, source of love), when the silence abruptly filled with a playback of the vocalists’ previous duet, seemingly captured by someone’s smartphone.

With Maestro Tampieri and his players looking on patiently, the old-music lover eventually mastered the new technology enough to interrupt the interruption.

Accademia Bizantina and soloist Delphine Galou return to Beirut Wednesday for an evening of sacred arias at the St. Elie Church, Qantari.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 27, 2019, on page 12.




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