Da Camera and guests explore the myth of Orpheus from Monteverdi to today

Wed Apr 03, 2019 at 1:15 pm
By Steven Brown

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo joined Da Camera for a concert at the Menil Collection in Houston Tuesday night.

The head-on collision of styles could not have been more violent.

The final chord of a passionate Monteverdi aria cut off and before Da Camera’s audience at Houston’s Menil Collection had time to applaud, wham! The silence was blasted away by the opening salvo of Pierre Henry’s The Veil of Orpheus II, a pioneering work of 1950s musique concrete.

The stark juxtaposition had a rationale. Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Henry’s work both spring from the Greek myth of the musician who traveled to the Underworld in hopes of retrieving his deceased wife. The iconic tale, so beloved of real-life composers across centuries, supplied the unifying thread of Da Camera’s concert Tuesday night.

The program–co-curated by young composer Matthew Aucoin and Da Camera artistic director Sarah Rothenberg and featuring star countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo–embraced not only the past but the future. Aucoin brought along two excerpts from his work-in-progress Eurydice, which Los Angeles Opera will premiere in 2020 with Costanzo. The MacArthur Award-winning composer also pitched in at times as pianist and conductor.

Aucoin launched the concert by accompanying baritone Mark Diamond in “Possente spirto,” the plea by Monteverdi’s Orpheus for entry to the Underworld. Diamond, an alumnus of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, fleshed out the spacious but fervent aria with a generous helping of melismas, rapid-fire repeated notes and other embellishments that heightened Orpheus’ emotions. His voice surged, exuding masculine resonance, as the opera’s hero proclaimed, “I am Orpheus!”

But when the protagonist’s anguish took hold, Diamond’s tones grew hushed. At the piano, Aucoin also captured the music’s aura of emotions, digging into his keyboard part with a vigor and fullness that helped make up for the absence of instrumental colors.

Henry’s Veil of Orpheus II turned the same confrontation between man and Underworld into a sonic phantasmagoria. To create it, Henry recorded an array of real-world sounds–from cloth being torn to a man’s speaking voice invoking Zeus to the playing of a harpsichord–then transformed them into an aural parallel to an abstract expressionist painting, vivid and visceral.

Da Camera presented the 15-minute work via a recording that the late Henry himself sent the group in the 1990s, Rothenberg explained in her program note. Kurt Stallman of Rice University’s REMLABS electronic-music group channeled the score Tuesday through 10 speakers surrounding the audience, and the Menil Collection lobby–the concert’s venue–was nearly dark, helping free the mind’s eye.

Coming after Monteverdi’s aria gave Henry’s work fresh resonance. The opening coup de theatre–the tearing of cloth amped up to explosive dimensions–could have symbolized the despair wrenching Orpheus’ soul or the horrors he encounters in Hades. Sputtering outbursts came across like terrified transformations of Diamond’s rapid-fire embellishments in Monteverdi. As the recorded voice’s pleas to Zeus rose from a whisper to a scream, they amounted to an even more desperate version of the dramatic range Diamond gave the aria.

Meanwhile, a nearby gallery in the Menil held a painting inspired in part by Henry’s score: Treatise on the Veil by American painter Cy Twombly, who said he created the 1970 work and related canvases after a chance encounter with The Veil of Orpheus on the radio.

Twombly’s mega-canvas, more than 20 feet wide and nearly 10 feet tall, is largely a field of gray, except for a horizontal band near the bottom that, to some viewers, hearkens back to a musical staff. Another version of the painting, housed in a German museum, spurred composer Matthias Pintscher to create his Study No. 1 for Treatise on the Veil, a duo for violin and cello.

Pintscher almost never employs the string instruments’ traditional sounds. Instead, this quiet work calls on the players to use unorthodox bowing and finger techniques to create 11 or so minutes of whispers, murmurs and wisps. Long-held notes evoke the grays that dominate Twombly’s canvas; short, scurrying gestures recall the enigmatic numbers and words scribbled amid the painting’s horizontal band.

Violinist Jacob Schafer and cellist Coleman Itzkoff created a vivid array of sonorities and contours, despite the music’s restrained dynamic range. Unfortunately, some audience members were not up to the challenge of maintaining a concentrated silence; not only did coughing break out periodically, but the hushed music was further intruded on by ringing from a clueless cell phone owner.

Excerpts from Harrison Birtwistle’s Orpheus Elegies for oboe, harp and singer brought more traditional sounds back into play. Some of the music employed just the oboist Jonathan Fischer and harpist Emily Klein; the most compelling item sent the oboe soaring to its highest range, where Fischer’s intensity evoked Orpheus’ wails of anguish.

In the vocal numbers, based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, the darkness of the Menil lobby augured against following the printed translations. But countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo brought the music such a wide range of vocal colors–sometimes almost disembodied, then pure, then vibrant and piercing–that his vocal palette created a story entirely on its own.

The concert then took off briefly on a tangent from the Orpheus theme. Aucoin’s This Earth, for singer and instrumental quintet, drew on another trip to the Underworld: an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy that describes Dante and his guide returning to earth.

Thanks to the abandon and commitment of Costanzo’s singing, the work’s contrasts between turbulence and stillness came across arrestingly. At one point, Costanzo held onto the Italian word tornar–“return”–so quietly and for o long that the music seemed suspended in air. Led by Aucoin, the quintet played evocatively, especially when he prodded the group to chime in with Costanzo’s vigor and fearlessness.

Two short samples of Aucoin’s upcoming Eurydice capped off the program. Introducing them, the composer explained that he and librettist Sarah Ruhl are retelling the legend from the heroine’s point of view. They also are marshaling two performers to play Orpheus: A baritone will portray him throughout, and a countertenor doppelgänger will chime in during the hero’s emotional and poetic flights.

With Aucoin returning to the piano, Diamond and Costanzo first performed a scene built around a love letter the heartbroken Orpheus writes to the deceased Eurydice. The second excerpt, based on a Latin text from the Roman writer and philosopher Boethius, was a salute to the power of Orpheus’ love.

Aucoin’s vocal lines unfolded more as a free-flowing narration than an overt melody, and sometimes they drew back almost to speech. When Costanzo joined in, his part moved parallel to Diamond’s, but not in unison; the interval between them varied, like those of the instrumental couples in the “Game of Pairs” from Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.

In the first scene, Diamond’s voice welled up with even more heft and ardor than it had in Monteverdi, yet the quasi-spoken moments had a pathos of their own. Costanzo’s expressiveness and impact complemented Diamond’s, both there and in the Latin setting, which ranged from declamatory force to euphonious harmony.

Alongside them, Aucoin again made the piano a ringing substitute for the orchestra. His Eurydice clearly will boast some arresting moments.

Da Camera will present “Ashberyana: A Musical Celebration of Poet John Ashbery,” featuring the Brentano String Quartet and others in works by Charles Wuorinen, John Zorn, Joan Tower, Erik Satie and Josquin des Prez 7:30 p.m. April 30. dacamera.com; 713-524-5050.

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