Chamber Choir soothes with melodic French madrigals

WCMA’s rotunda was aglow in the Sunday afternoon light and packed with spectators, who squeezed between the room’s Ionic columns for the Chamber Choir’s spring concert. The program consisted of madrigals by the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). As I settled into my seat a fellow viewer, leafing through the provided translations of the Italian lyrics, remarked to her companion, “Well, this does answer a question: They did French kiss in those days.” It was a fitting prelude to the performance, which featured some of the most sensuous music I’ve encountered. Under the guidance of director and conductor Brad Wells, artist in residence, the choir brought Monteverdi’s madrigals vividly to life.
The madrigal – an a cappella song that features multiple independent, overlapping vocal parts and secular, poetic lyrics – dominated the music of late 16th-century Italy. Perhaps the foremost composer of his day, Monteverdi “straddled the greatest dividing line in the history of Western classical music, between the Renaissance and Baroque eras,” according to Wells. The program drew from Monteverdi’s fourth and fifth book of madrigals, published in the early 1600s.
Rich harmonies, contrapuntal vocal parts and Italian lyrics made for extremely listenable music – in Wells’ words, “some of the most durable, beautiful and rich pieces ever written.” While the madrigals were originally composed for five voices, they made a great match for the ensemble of 17, which proved capable of both powerful, surging moments and intimate, hushed passages. The interpretive and dynamic range of the group lent the performances a nuance lacking in the melodramatic lyrics. At the same time, the beauty of the music and the singers’ performances made even the most high-pitched emotions feel genuine.
The first piece, “Si ch’io Vorrei Morire” (translated as “Yes, I would like to die”), set the tone for the program. The choir launched into the titular opening lyric with all parts singing in time with each other, creating a single, harmonious voice that resounded through the rotunda. As they moved through the piece, the different parts frequently moved away from each other, echoing lines to create a breathtaking, cascading effect. The marriage of music and lyrics worked particularly well here: The rich texture created by the overlapping parts evoked the speaker’s vivid description of his lover’s kiss. From the start, the group displayed a keen sensitivity to dynamics.Whether building through crescendos or quickly pivoting from loud to soft, they brought out the drama of the intersecting melodies.
Another standout performance came with the fourth piece, “Piagne e sospira” (“She wept and sighed”). Wells introduced it as a “tour-de-force in terms of counterpoint,” referring to the composition of several distinct melodic lines that when played or sung together form a harmonic whole – a key feature of madrigals as well as music of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. The tenors carried the opening line, with the other parts gradually falling in behind them. The various sections then traded lines – each section providing each lyric with a different melody – before meeting for the final two lines. The choir’s cohesion allowed the various parts to move freely and still hang together, and it made the payoff of the final lines all the more rewarding.
The ensemble then broke into quintets for four madrigals. These smaller groups offered a multifaceted view of the choir by showcasing the various timbres of the individual singers. Each performance took the form of a musical conversation: The singers stood in a semi-circle and sang to each other. While each performance featured a different student conductor, no actual conducting occurred. The singers stayed together through eye contact alone, offering a smaller yet all the more remarkable display of the group’s cohesion.
The entire choir returned for the final three numbers, which emphasized the group’s power as a collective unit. In particular, “Ch’io t’ami,” which translates simply as “I love you,” illuminated the depth of feeling contained in the song’s title. While each section sang their melody with aplomb, the ensemble together surpassed the sum of its parts, achieving a performance of fully-realized emotion. Though the concert lasted less than an hour, such moments made for a rich experience.