Christmas in Rome
Epiphany Parish of Seattle
December 7, 2018
Review by Sharon Cumberland
The Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus has generated a huge catalog of wonderful music, much of it from the Baroque period (1600-1750). And who better to present some of these familiar and rediscovered classics than Pacific MusicWorks, in what better location than the beautiful Epiphany Parish of Seattle in Madrona? The audience for this sold-out performance filled every pew in the long nave, spilling upward into the choir loft—the ideal place to watch PMW’s 12-person orchestra and five singers as they built the elaborate structures of baroque cantatas and concerti grossi.
The “Christmas in Rome” program turned to the eternal city for its sources, showcasing music composed for elaborate musical celebrations in the headquarters of Christianity. The first half of the evening consisted of two concerti for the twelve-person orchestra—Archangelo Corelli’s famous Concerto Grosso “Fatto per la Notte di Natale” and George Fredrick Handel’s charming Concerto Grosso Op. 6 #5—as well Marco Marazzolli’s short cantata, ”Con Fausto augurio” for two sopranos and a tenor (two angels and a shepherd). The second half of the evening was devoted to Alessandro Stradella’s cantata “Ah, troppo é ver,” in which Lucifer and a chorus of Furies bemoan the coming of Christ into the world, while angels, shepherds, and St. Joseph rejoice.
Baroque musicians are often scholars and researchers, since quantities of music of this period still sit untranscribed in libraries all over the world. Both the Corelli and the Handel concerti are well-known favorites—baroque popular hits always welcome in concerts—but the Marazzolli cantata is a work brought to light by the Director/musicologist Stephen Stubbs, who discovered “”Con Fausto augurio” (“With propitious augurs” or less literally, “”With good-luck signs”) in a collection of unedited cantatas from the 17th century. The work was first discovered and transcribed by hand in the 1990s by fellow lutenist and musicologist Paul O’Dette, who provided the score that Stubbs then rendered into a modern edition using the transcription program Sibelius. Seattle audiences are, most likely, the first to hear this beautiful mini-drama of two soprano angels announcing the birth of Christ to one startled and very articulate shepherd. Together they awaken the other shepherds who then rush to the manger to see the child come into the world. But, in the final lyrics of the cantata, the angels and shepherd sing that “If the feet are too late/Ah, with the wings of faith/Let the heart fly to him.” In the devout 17th century as in the present time, we can only know the miracle of Christmas through faith—and, I will add, through recovered treasures like this one.
The second half of the program was Stradella’s cantata “Ah, troppo é ver” (Lucifer’s complaint that “Ah, it’s too true” that God is sending his son into the world to thwart satanic plans), a thirty-minute drama that opens with the devil and ends with St. Joseph and a heavenly choir. Director Stubbs, in his program notes, points out that Stradella was the first to combine the virtues of the concerto grosso with the cantata, creating a form that ultimately led to opera as we know it. Hearing and seeing this short proto-opera connects the dots between choral church music, secular singing for entertainment, and religious and secular orchestral music.
Certainly the opening is pure operatic drama, in which Lucifer (the awe-inspiring bass Douglas Williams) delivers an impassioned condemnation of God’s tyranny, and calls upon the Furies to wreak war and vengeance on Heaven. It brings to mind the Satanic monologues in operas such as Boito’s Mefistofele and Belioz’ La Damnation de Faust (one wonders if those composers knew Stradella’s cantata). The Furies—singers who later perform angels and saints—step forward and agree, in crackling “fury” voices, to “launch their thunderbolts” on the “horrible orders/Of the king of the underworld.” The dark forces leave the story at this stage, which is continued with an Angel aria in which the shepherds are awakened with the good news of a heavenly child. These shepherds are even more articulate than Marazzolli’s, agreeing to hasten to “where fate has transubstantiated Heaven into a humble manger.” It seems appropriate that these “pastori” are the voice of the librettist, Cardinal Giulio Riospigliosi, a poet-priest who places theology in the mouths of shepherds, and simplicity and acceptance into the mouths of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph.
I was impressed that St. Joseph’s aria—the noble acceptance of his son’s “prodigious destiny”—was written for a castrato whose soprano range, in Stradella’s time, was considered the heroic voice while the deep basso was reserved for evil or comic characters. It seems the opposite to us today, probably because there are (happily) no more castrati, and the development of male falsettists capable of singing castrato roles has been fairly recent in music history. Nathan Medley sang this role with translucent dignity.
I was sitting in the balcony so that I could watch the players, and saw that this performance was being videoed—and I hope it will be available to the public someday. Yet no recording can convey the powerful effect of watching a group of gifted musicians create this exciting, multi-textured music—especially Corelli’s concerto grosso “made for Christmas night.” On a recording, the melodies that are developed through repetitions and variations sound solid, as though a leading voice is accompanied by an array of harmonizing supporters. But if you are fortunate to see the work being played, you realize that what sounds like an unspooling line of music is more like a series of ping-pong balls being batted back and forth among players in a manner that is both visually and aurally exciting. PMW’s violin and viola players always stand while performing orchestral pieces, so that you see how music involves the whole body—the string section moving like branches in a breeze, alternately gentle and intense. It’s a pleasure to see music created as the original pre-recording audiences saw it—watching players conduct each other with glances, turnings, and nods. You see the intimate relationship among individuals that creates an inclusive musical environment for the audience. It’s a thrilling dimension of live performance that can’t be duplicated on any electronic medium.
No tribute to this extraordinary orchestra is enough to convey their expertise and devotion to music. It’s always a joy and a privilege to see Pacific MusicWorks in action. And you can see them for free in their lunchtime program called Sanctuary in the City on the first Wednesdays of the month at the Josephinum downtown (2nd Ave at Stewart St.) from 12:10-12:50. On January 2nd it will be Music for Church and Cello. The PMW Underground program that moves from brewery to brewery also brings great music to where the people are. The next program, Corelli Goes Global, as well as the schedule for PNW’s next full presentation, Leading Ladies (women composers in a male-dominated world) can be found at PacificMusicWorks.org.