I can never get enough early music, so I was tickled pink to cover one of the main events of Dr. Steve Rosenberg's vaunted Early Music series, one of Piccolo Spoleto's perennial glories.
Performing was Rosenberg's crack Charleston Pro Musica: the College of Charleston's terrific mixed (and variable) ensemble of ancient instrumentalists (here, mostly recorders, baroque guitars and assorted percussion). Joining them were several modern instruments (violins, cello), though they played in a thoroughly period style. Joining them was Dr. Robert Taylor's esteemed Madrigal Singers, the cream of his nationally recognized Concert Choir.
According to Rosenberg, we were in for what might well be only the second complete public performance anywhere in modern times of Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi's "Balletti" — in its day a smash-hit, fifteen-piece cycle of madrigals that this late-renaissance Italian composer conceived as a dance-sequence. The music inspired countless other period composers, like English madrigalist Thomas Morley. Individual numbers and sets from the cycle have been steadily performed (and recorded) in the past half-century, but it's apparently never been presented in its entirety, until Rosenberg and company performed it at the college around a month ago (I was there for it).
These pieces range from sad and searching to bright and bouncy. And I guarantee you've never heard as many "fa-la-la's" before in your whole life. Only in one number – the pensive "Gloria d'Amore" – was the usual fa-la-la refrain dispensed with. Common period subject matter prevailed in the texts, like the giddy ecstasy (or dire agony) of love, idyllic pastoral themes (lots of pretty shepherdesses!), or the glory of military combat (as adapted to love).
As Rosenberg pointed out, the instrumental accompaniments and interludes are largely educated guesswork, since the instrumental parts were never published. Still, both the arrangements and the perky players sounded "right" for the music. After all, some really fine period musicians were at work. Like percussion-meister Danny Mallon and recorder virtuosos David Heywood and new CPM member Esther Senft (she's also a great violinist). Besides, over the years, I've learned to trust Rosenberg's instincts and experience where early music is concerned.
And the singers sounded simply glorious: precise, spirited, resonant, and stylistically true. The assorted soloists and sub-ensembles were especially brilliant. What a wonderful bunch of voices Taylor has brought together!
While not every period listener might care to hear a full hour of non-stop Italian madrigals (or all those fa-la-las), I found the occasion to be an engrossing and most enjoyable musical experience. I love it when different elements within the College's Music department (and the splendid musicians who run them) get together to make such unique and memorable music as this.
You can hear much more from Rosenberg and friends in coming Early Music Series events over the festival's remainder. Check out program specifics in your Piccolo brochure. Aim in particular for the concerts involving countertenor sensation Jose Lemos (June 3, 5, and 6).