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Inside Monteverdi Study Weekend
South Bank Centre, Sun 2 Nov, 2003

A lost art - Monteverdi, music and classical rhetoric Talk by Mark Tucker:
Monteverdi Tenor Duets (Mark Tucker & Lynton Atkinson, tenors David Roblou) harpsichord

Selva morale and more - Monteverdi's church music
Talk by Andrew Carwood: He didn't only write the Vespers
Open rehearsal for concert
Concert: The Cardinal's Musick/Andrew Carwood

And God said, Let there be lights (Genesis Chapter 1/14) The Art Bible, George Newnes

South Bank's audiences have a healthy appetite for instruction, and this Monteverdi study weekend was a notable success, with Jonathan Miller's new take on Orfeo sold out on the Saturday (rehearsal and performance) and the Sunday events, starting at noon, very well attended.

The quality of the lectures and of the music-making was high, but my reactions to the day as a whole were mixed; there seemed to be mixed motivations at work.

Andrew Carwood described the revolution in church music which Monteverdi spearheaded in Italy , building upon the ideas of Giaches de Wert, his predecessor in Mantua , who introduced "choral recitative", a forerunner of opera. Following a time in which in which musical elaboration and counterpoint relegated detailed meanings of texts for liturgical choral settings to a very secondary place, Monteverdi developed a flexible way of setting secular and sacred texts, for smaller forces, with many solos and duets, and emphasis on mood and word painting, to be illustrated in the evening concert.

Most rewarding of all was the revelatory talk by Mark Tucker; too concentrated for note-taking, so I hope it will be published. He traced the manners of singing texts from the Greeks of antiquity through to Brecht. Tucker emphasized how totally driven by words and their expression was Monteverdi, who developed specific modes of word setting, Concitato for agitation, Molle for pure singing and an intermediate Temperato; consonants articulated with Tau, 'Apollo's plectrum'.

Tucker opined that it was essential that Monteverdi be sung in the original Italian, with translations (over-titles for the operas) to help audiences. His presentation was exemplary; an informal, conversational manner, made possible by perfectly adjusted amplification whilst he spoke; copious sung examples accompanied by David Roblou to illustrate each point he made. For the first time it left me able to understand and articulate why it is that a work like Orfeo, constituted mainly of recitative with simple accompaniment, holds the attention for long spans and is never boring.

But the concerts inhabited a different world, "atmospheric", so I was assured.

For the duets, Mark Tucker had provided more than two pages of closely argued analytic notes discussing each piece. And in the £3 programme there were seven pages of text, with translations.

But what we got, without warning, was a "show", with blue and orange illumination on stage and near total darkness in the auditorium, despite an angry shout from within the audience "can we have some light"!

It is an excellent show, let there be no doubt, given by two excellent and well matched tenors, by memory and in Italian, of course,with all the moods and quips in the texts mimed for our benefit. That gave some general impression to which we could respond; they also moved around the gangways and even sat amongst the audience to sing from the back, which is fun, I suppose? But this was part of a study weekend, not just entertainment.

We had a few of the delicious duets from Monteverdi's seventh book of madrigals, and scenes from Poppea and Ulysses (Tucker and Atkinson even swapping the role of Ulysses himself to add to the confusion!). For me, a non-linguist, it was enormously frustrating, even though - it must be admitted - the audience as a whole seemed perfectly happy in the dark (at Wigmore Hall vocal recitals one can observe that many listeners don't follow the words in their programmes).

A complaint afterwards to the hall manager was received courteously and with acceptance that the needs of the patrons should be of prime concern. It was explained that the singers had wanted "atmosphere", but I was assured that the problem would be rectified for the evening concert of church music [It wasn't !!].

That was forgotten in the event, and Andrew Carwood's black-uniformed musicians appeared before us brilliantly lit; the audience in pitch darkness. After a few items dim lighting was restored - enough to be able to reach the doors safely, but not sufficient to refer to Andrew Carwood's detailed notes on the individual items during platform re-arrangements, nor to follow the five closely typed pages of texts and translations whilst listening to this mostly unfamiliar music.

The music is marvellous; the performances were good. It had been a long day; we departed at the interval.

Many potential concert-goers are alienated by audience control effected by ancillary, and usually unidentified, 'experts' and 'event managers', who think they know what we like and need.

We hesitate to attend live performances of Indian classical music (which we love) because of the prevalence of excessive amplification; concert performances of operas in foreign languages are often given in relative darkness, leaving purchasers of expensive programmes to read them afterwards, and 'lighting designers' are as likely to cause somnolence as 'atmosphere' by their efforts; audiences are never asked whether they might prefer light to this sort of manipulation.

Andrew Carwood's rehearsal with The Cardinals, in informal garb and normal lighting, had been infinitely more rewarding than the concert; if Mark Tucker and Lyndon Atkinson (marvellous singers both, and in perfect accord) had appeared likewise for their recital, stayed up on the platform and just sung those fantastic duets whilst we followed the printed texts, our own imaginations would have supplied all the "atmosphere" anyone could want. And for the sacred music (which Carwood urged should be given in regular church services) there is no historical precedent for plunging congregations into darkness.

Let there be light!

First published on Seen&Heard


© Peter Grahame Woolf