Music from Monteverdi’s Venice enchants Gables Museum
Like Marcel Proust I have always been captivated and enchanted by the faces of Botticelli’s angels. There is simplicity of line and a purity of expression that fills one with hope and optimism for the future of mankind.
Botticelli was painting his angels over 600 years ago and yet they are with us still, challenging and mystifying us with the clarity and steadfastness of their gaze.
Since first discovering Botticelli, half a century ago, I have always wondered what his angels would sound like if only we could hear them sing.
Friday night, in the Coral Gables Museum, I finally learned how Botticelli’s angels sound.
They sound as pure, sublime and “angelic” as youth itself; like Proust’s madeleine, their voices release us from the restraints of time, returning us to the simplicity of a more innocent age, back to all the mornings of the world. Botticelli’s angels came alive again Friday night, giving us a glimpse of Paradise and revealing all the innocence we have lost.
Only 100 years and 100 miles separate Botticelli in Florence from Monteverdi in Venice, and Monteverdi must have been thinking of those angels’ faces when he wrote his divine madrigals. The music is so fresh and pure, clear and crystalline that it can only be sung by angels. The music bridges not only the 100 years between Botticelli and Monteverdi, but also the 500 years and 3,500 miles between northeast Italy and southeast Florida.
As part of its annual, weeklong Tropical Baroque Music Festival, the Miami Bach Society presented a sold-out concert in the Coral Gables Museum’s Fewell Gallery on Friday night, March 9. Over 100 guests arrived to listen to Fuoco e Cenere’s lively but sensitive interpretation of early 17th century love songs from Monteverdi’s Venice performed in the original Italian and using original medieval instruments.
Fuoco e Cenere is a small French early-music ensemble featuring Bertrand Cuiller on a single-manual Portuguese harpsichord. His solo performance of Frescobaldi’s Toccata nona could have been written by Bach – and indeed Bach was deeply influenced by Frescobaldi’s scores.
Just as medieval angels are often depicted playing the recorder, so too Patricia Lavail played a variety of hauntingly exotic recorders throughout the evening, culminating with the hauntingly beautiful Canzona Passeggiata by Angelo Notari.
The most unusual instrument, however, was Andre Henrich’s theorbo – a long-necked lute, developed for its extended bass range in the 16th century, when Monteverdi was composing. This extraordinary instrument has an amazing bass sound that modern bassists John Entwistle and Paul McCartney can only envy.
When he played the Kapsberger’s Arpeggiata for solo theorbo, I could feel the air in the Fewell Gallery vibrate as when a low-rider car, with its volume on high, strays onto a Coral Gables street.
Presiding over this group of uniquely talented musicians was its exuberant leader, Jay Bernfeld. Like some grizzled medieval friar, grey and fey, he vigorously bowed his viola da gamba while his energetic body movements infected and inspired the troupe of performers. His ever-changing facial expressions reflected all the passions of the composer’s vision.
But above all, it was Botticelli’s angels who made the night so magical. Julie Fioretti from Paris and Natalie Perez, originally from London, are two young sopranos with the faces of beautiful young women but the voices of angels.
The Fewell Gallery is a large space with over 100 people in the audience and yet the lilting, vibrant voices danced through the air with no microphones to distort or distract. The audience was spellbound. Over 100 people sat without moving; no coughing, no murmuring, no movement – just rapt silence.
Sometimes the blonde Fioretti would sing solo and other times the brunette Perez would take center stage, but most of the time they sang duets; their naked voices bouncing off each other like sunlight on the waters of Biscayne Bay. Medieval music is often thought of as distantly cerebral but the bodies of these two sopranos, like Jay Bernfeld, the eminence grise behind them on the viola da gamba, were in constant motion, bobbing and swaying energetically to the music.
The pleasure they all derived from the music was expressed in the delighted physicality of their movements and the spontaneous joy of their smiles.
Despite the angelic purity of the sound, it was secular rather than sacred music they were singing and a naughty humor lay not far below the surface. The songs were of unrequited love, broken hearts, handsome shepherds and lovelorn pretty maidens. For Monteverdi’s Bel Pastor the two sopranos stood on each side of the stage and exchanged the timeless clichés of youthful passion. “Do you really love me? ..... How much?"
The Fewell Gallery is the perfect setting for the music of Monteverdi’s 16th century Venice, surrounded as it is with all the splendid maps of the 16th century Spanish exploration of Florida. Even if Ponce de Leon did not trudge into the Everglades with Monteverdi on his iPod playlist, Father Francisco Villareal built the first European settlement at the mouth of the Miami River in 1567 – the year of Monteverdi’s birth.
The gallery is also perfect for its acoustics and once again I marveled at the clarity of the sound, impressed that just two young voices could make such a large space resonate with such purity. Dr. David Dolata, director of FIU’s School of Music, was so impressed with what he described as the clarity of the acoustics that he is planning to hold a concert here in November.
I was fortunate to have been in the museum on Thursday when Fuoco e Cenere was rehearsing. Technicians were climbing giant ladders to focus the lights; workers were arranging chairs while on the stage the six performers practiced their performance. The men were in jeans and flip-flops, Jay Bernfeld was in a faded track suit and the two girls were in baggy punk shorts and T-shirts. They looked like a grunge band from Seattle.
And then the music started – and I heard the angels.
The Coral Gables Museum, 285 Aragon Ave., just gets better and better with each event.
For more information visit: www.coralgablesmuseum.org.