30 July 2011

the Vinaccesi Ensemble at Old First Church

I haven’t heard any music, live or recorded (except for whatever contemporary urban life ladles over innocent bystanders, plus whatever snatch of something is playing repetitively in my head), since the Missa Solemnis at the end of last month. So last night I went to Old First Church to hear the Vinaccesi Ensemble performing solo cantatas by their eponymous composer.

Old First Church has an excellent concert series, but normally I’m just worn out by Friday and inclined to go home rather than pointlessly wasting most of the evening waiting for 8:00 to roll around. But the church is close to where I've been staying this month (a short and pleasant walk, about a mile, some of it past a park). So that was lucky for me, since this was a delightful way to end my musical fasting.

Who is Benedetto Vinaccesi, you ask? At least I hope you are, so that I can feel I'm not the only one who has listened to baroque music for decades without ever hearing of him. He's a bit of a mystery, it sadly turns out, since most of his apparently abundant works have been lost, despite his association with such prominent Venetian institutions of the time (1666 - 1719) as the Ospedaletto and San Marco. The raffish, carefree nature of the sinking city of heedless carnival became downright careless when it came to preserving musical scores. Eight solo cantatas are among the survivors; I heard six of them last night, sung by soprano Nanette McGuinness, mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich, and tenor Jonathan Smucker, along with Amy Brodo on Baroque ‘cello, Susie Fong on harpsichord, and Sarge Gerbode on archlute.

The unattributed texts are exactly what you might expect from the period: amorous shepherds and philosophical shepherdesses ruminate on the many pains and occasional pleasures of love. It’s a tribute to the skills of the composer and the performers that an evening of this material neither cloys nor tires; it was really a delightful concert, and a darkened semi-ornate church is as close to a perfect setting as you’re going to get outside of a frescoed palazzo. The rush of traffic outside on Van Ness Avenue could pass through the stone walls for the lapping of lagoon waters.

The vocalists were uniformly strong and engaging and if I express a slight preference for the luxurious mezzo of Scharich it might be because that is my favorite of the three offered voice-types. I did find that the lute, so intimate and delicate in nature, was sort of lost in the balance (I was sitting about halfway back, on the center aisle; maybe the blend sounded differently elsewhere), and I thought I heard an occasional instrumental misstep (but what do I know? I’ve never heard this music before; maybe they were intentionally expressive elements), but these are minor things in a really enjoyable evening.

According to the program notes, the Ensemble will be recording all eight of the cantatas this year, thanks to a grant from the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music. Based on last night, I’m looking forward to the recording; that will be a disc worth getting, if you enjoy wandering down the sidepaths of the baroque.

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