Sunday, June 08, 2008

Striggio Mass in 40 parts & 60 parts

Davitt Moroney, conductor
Magnificat (Warren Stewart, artistic director)
Philharmonia Chorale (Bruce Lamott, director)
American Bach Soloists (Jeffrey Thomas, artistic director)
Schola Cantorum San Francisco (Paul Flight, director)
Perfect Fifth (Mark Sumner, artistic director)
Instrumental group including His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts,
with Wim Becu, contrabass sackbut

I was in Berkeley for the Saturday evening performance of Alessandro Striggio's Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno for 40 and 60 voices, led by Davitt Moroney, who re-discovered the piece after 4 centuries. Apparently this is the most extravagant choral piece every written, & it's such a novelty that I had to check it out.

For the full experience, I started by attending Moroney's afternoon lecture about the re-discovery & the historical & political context of the original performances of the Mass in 1567. Moroney thinks the piece was commissioned by the Medici family as part of an elaborate scheme to get the Habsburg Emperor to recognize the Medicis as first above all other Italian ducal families. If this was the case, the effort was a failure, but it makes for a good story of international intrigue surrounding the Mass. At the end of the lecture, someone jokingly asked Moroney when he would be writing "The de Medici Code", & he actually is thinking about writing a historical novel about Striggio!

The Mass is only 30 minutes long, & the program itself an intermissionless 80 minutes. It started out with a series of shorter pieces, mostly showing off the players of the ensemble His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts. The ensemble included a contrabass sackbutt, which looked like a 10 foot long trombone. It produced extremely low tones that were mellow, almost fluffy, in timbre & not at all brassy or raw sounding. The player manipulated it with impressive ease. It was impossible not to look & listen every time it was played.

The Mass itself was performed with 1 singer per part. The 5 double choruses stood on separate risers arrayed in a semi-circle. Choruses alternated wearing black or white shirts, so that they were easy to distinguish visually. Sometimes only 1 chorus is utilized, or 2 or 3. Sometimes the choruses answer one another. This adds a spatial element to the sound. When all 5 sing together, it is for special effects.

The climax is the Agnus Dei, when an additional 20 singers climbed onto the risers & joined the 40 already onstage. The voices have staggered entrances, so that the sound washes from the left to the right. One feels continuous pulses or waves of sound. It actually reminded me of the prelude to Das Rheingold.

The performance got an enthusiastic standing ovation from the sold out house. The audience even managed to get some rhythmic clapping going for a while. I think it's the first time I've ever witnessed that in this country, & it thrilled me almost as much as the concert itself. From the podium, Moroney told us, "Since there's only one piece with 60 vocal parts, we'll do it again." He encored the 60 part Agnus Dei so we could get another chance to savor this unique wash of sound.

The venue itself was a bit of a pain this evening. First of all for some reason there was a slow-moving line just to get into the church. Then there were rather desperate long lines for the very few restrooms. The audience was very attentive, but an older gentleman a few rows in front of me had a hearing aid that squealed several times during the performance. Each time, he corrected the problem by banging his hand against his ear.

1 comment:

The Opera Tattler said...

I hadn't thought of how the beginning of Das Rheingold was like the Agnes Dei in this, but now that you mention it, I can see what you mean.