Le Muse Giocose (The Playful Muses)
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., Feb. 20, 2004
Le Muse GiocoseBellmont-Cogdell House, Feb. 14
The intimacy of attending a chamber concert performed in someone's home hearkens back to a simpler time when social interaction took place in person. Before telecommunications, before headphones and personal playlists, there were musicians and their patrons and rooms in which the two could meet and share something personal and melodic. Art was the catalyst that brought a community together. Thankfully, several Austin chamber groups and presenters still believe in the power of intimate artistic expression, and this 31st Street Concert, hosted at the lovely Bellmont-Cogdell House, proved again that the desire of local audiences to hear beautiful music performed in an intimate setting is matched by our local artistic community's ability to provide excellent artists to fulfill that desire.
Desire was the name of the evening's game: Le Muse Giocose in English, The Playful Muses took Italian Baroque love songs as its heart, and the muses for this evening of heart, art, and architecture were the enchanting soprano Jenifer Thyssen and two visual artists, Jill Bedgood and Beverly Penn. The muses coupled Thyssen's repertoire of love songs with Bedgood and Penn's art installations; Thyssen was backed by a trio of gifted early-music performers: Scott Horton, Barrett Sills, and Laurie Young Stevens (who seems to be everywhere this classical season).
The program offered almost a dozen songs about love in its various guises, as well as a trio of virtuoso instrumentals. Continuing the development of "courtly" love poetry of the Renaissance, Italian Baroque song offers profound and musically complex works, handled with precision and aplomb by the artists. The contradictions of the lover's sometimes-tragic, sometimes-joyful existence ("You wound me with your glance, but you heal me with your smile" is a typical sentiment) are wonderfully matched in music that echoes longing, attainment, and eternal devotion sometimes within a single song. Thyssen, standing center, delivered the songs with assuredness. She eased into Monteverdi's bright "Quel sguardo sdegnosetto" and in the following Luigi Rossi selection created a complex dialogue with "Gelosia" ("Jealousy"). The intense Tarquinio Merula "Canzonetta sopra la nanna," a mother's lullaby founded on a darkly pendulous melody, offers a tale of foreboding that predicts the child's life to come (Jesus' life full of trials and suffering); yet once the mother sings of their reunion in Paradise, the song evolves into airy major chords, and Thyssen deftly switched from an ever darker and direr delivery to one of lightness and hope. Lighter songs completed the evening. First, Barbara Strozzi's youthful and chipper "Amor dormiglione" ("Arise, Love, sleep no more") imploring Love to help the young subject find joy (and soon, please). Giovanni F. Sances' "Cantata sopra la ciaccona" began with Thyssen bright and upbeat against the sentiment of the song: "I am dying of torment, without fateful solace," then altering her tone to deliver the warning: "Lidia, if you remain silent, you will remain a virgin." Sterner words were never sung.
The promised "artistic trialogue" between Thyssen and Bedgood and Penn turned out a bit one-sided: The degree to which the venue was transformed into a "multi-sensorial" celebration of Italian music, art, and culture probably depended on where one sat the most evident visual aspect of the collaboration: thin black Romanesque arches that helped frame the performers. Elsewhere in the house, elements of Bedgood and Penn's collaborative work from the Austin Museum of Art exhibit "At the Edge of Paradise" were hung. The desire to create some interplay between the artists' media may have fueled the creative preparation of the event, but it was always going to be a challenge to turn the lovely white, windowed performance room into something more Italian than English. Still, it was the music that was the acknowledged leaping-off point for this artistic collaboration, and the quality and approachability of Thyssen and her musical collaborators was of the highest magnitude.