‘Beautiful, inspired’ choral music from the 17th century
By Peter Alexander Nov. 6 at 11:15 p.m.
Amanda Balestrieri’s family just got a lot larger.
The conductor of the Seicento Baroque Ensemble thinks of the choir as family, and they just added 20 new members for their 2019–20 season. “We had just over 20 [singers] last time, and we’ve got over 30 this time,” she says.
Amanda Balestrieri with Seicento from a past season
“It’s like having a third of your family new family members. It’s been really exciting to greet this new group of people and the atmosphere is great and everyone is very devoted and I think it’s wonderful!”
The expanded “family” will have its debut with a concert titled “Praise & Lamentation: Sacred Music of the Early Baroque,” to be performed in Boulder Friday and Denver Sunday (Nov. 8 and 10). Seicento will be accompanied on the concert by an ensemble of two violins, two violas da gamba and organ. Members of Seicento will play recorder to supplement the ensemble for some pieces.
The program is divided into two sections: “The Croatians,” featuring music by little known composers Vinko Jelić and Ivan Lukačić; and after intermission, music by Franz Tunder, Heinrich Biber and Salamone Rossi, all of whom are well known to scholars of the Baroque, if not to general audiences.
All of the composers on the program were active in the 17th century, the early years of the Baroque style, which is Balestrieri’s performance specialty and the focus of Seicento (the name means 17th-century).
Musical programs get created in many ways. Sometimes, as in the case of some selections on “Praise & Lamentation,” the conductor selects some favorite pieces and arranges compatible pieces around them.
And sometimes the conductor gets a random email from a distant country.
That is exactly what happened with Balestrieri while she was planning the concert. “I received an email from someone in Croatia,” she explains. “It just said, ‘would your ensemble be interested in performing these works by Croatian Baroque composers?’ So I wrote, ‘Tell me more!’”
It turned out that the email came from a retired Croatian architect who has copies of music that is known in Croatia, but largely unknown elsewhere. “Radio choirs in Croatia have done recordings [of their works] that you can find on YouTube, but there’s not a lot of information about these composers,” Balestrieri says
Both composers travelled around Europe, and particularly to Italy, which was a center for the development of the Baroque musical style. “They heard this music and a lot of what was happening in Italy was also happening elsewhere,” Balestrieri says. “So when you listen to this music you would think you were listening to Monteverdi”—the leading Italian composer of the time. “It’s that style of writing.”
The main difference from Monteverdi and others of the time, she says, is that “there are a few unusual harmonies in there. And the other thing you should listen for is the use of female voices” for the phrases of chant that are included in some of the pieces. It was more common for phrases of chant to be assigned to the men’s voices.
The second half of the program came from Balestrieri’s interest in separate settings of Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon.” She knew of the two settings, one in German by Tunder (An Wasserflüssen Babylon) and one in Hebrew by Rossi (Al naharot bavel), and thought it would be fascinating to juxtapose the two on the same program.
“I wanted to do the two settings that contrast so beautifully, one very guttural setting and one beautiful setting,” she said.
But the two settings contrast in other ways than their language and musical style. Tunder sets the first part of the Psalm, which is entirely a lamentation: “We sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. . . How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
Rossi’s setting adds the final lines of the Psalm, which are a violent call for revenge: “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed. . . Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”
The inclusion of those texts then led Balestrieri to add the “praise” part of the program, to provide balance for the audience. “I always try to make sure that there’s some kind of flow in the emotions,” she says. “If you’re going to go into the depths, you also want to have something uplifting, so that people have a more balanced experience.”
The rest of the program then consists of music by Tunder, by Heinrich Biber, and by Rossi. “It’s almost like a catharsis in the middle of the program,” Balestrieri says.
All three composers have attracted Balestrieri’s attention in the past. Of the three, Rossi is a particularly interesting figure in the history of Baroque music. An Italian Jewish musician, he was employed by the Catholic court of Mantua as concertmaster of the court orchestra, where he heard and played the music of the leading composers of the time.
Rossi’s own works include instrumental pieces and choral settings of Jewish liturgical music in the original Hebrew language—an entirely novel development in his time, and one for which he had to have the permission of the Rabbi. Seicento has sung his music before, and Balestrieri loved it. “The music itself is so beautiful, I wanted to program more of it,” she says.
The concert as a whole mostly comprises music that will be unfamiliar to anyone who has not studied the music of the 17th century, but Balestrieri wants you to know that she doesn’t chose pieces just because the are unknown. “My main criterion is the music has to be really good,” she says. “It’s not a question of just finding any old music that people haven’t heard.”
On this concert, she says, the music she found “is really solid and beautiful and inspired.”
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Seicento Baroque Ensemble
“Praise & Lamentation: Sacred Music of the Early Baroque”
Seicento Baroque Ensemble, Amanda Balestrieri, conductor
Music by Vinko Jelić, Ivan Lukačić, Franz Tunder, Heinrich Biber and Salamone Rossi
7:30 p.m. Friday, Mov 8, First United Methodic Church, Boulder
3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, Our Merciful Savior Episcopal Church, Denver