John Edwards and Hallie Fishel of The Musicians in Ordinary. Photo by Alexandra Guerson

This is no ordinary musical period

  • October 27, 2012

TORONTO - It’s hard to believe, watching John Edwards cradle his giant lute-like theorbo, that the music he is playing could be considered anything but sacred.

As he moves his fingers over the instrument’s neck, the delicate strains of Monteverdi that blossom are both rapturous and heavenly.

However, as Edwards notes, these divine melodies were often the product of secular compositions that hoped to draw in churchgoers during the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation.

“While the Protestants are doing three-hour sermons, the mention of the Baroque is sort of for the Counter-Reformation to put ‘sparkly things’ to draw you in that way,” laughs Edwards, one part of The Musicians in Ordinary, who have been commissioned by the University of St. Michael’s College to conduct the Principal’s Music Series for the 2012-13 season. The series launched Oct. 23.

St. Michael’s is acting as a patron of the event, which will serve not only as a one-of-a-kind concert opportunity for students, but also function as an educational exploration of a remarkable period in musical history.

The Musicians in Ordinary are a two-person ensemble of John Edwards, on the towering, lute-like theorbo, and soprano Hallie Fishel. Joined by some of Toronto’s pre-eminent Baroque musicians, Edwards and Fishel will be presenting four concerts that explore the music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods that often times blurred the lines between sacred and secular.

As an example, Edwards displays an image of The Ecstasy of St. Theresa, a famous marble sculpture by Bernini, that is at once a display of reverence and sensuality. The idea, explains Edwards, was for the Church to capitalize on the popularity of the Baroque esthetic that would appeal to the general population as they attended church as well.

“That was what they were aiming for: to draw the people in. So, it seemed... that they were seeing it as giving the public at large an access to the arts, in a way,” said Edwards.

“I think that one of the things, with the Counter-Reformation, they try and use Mary as a ‘selling point’ to draw you in.”

Monteverdi, one of the most popular composers of the time, is featured in the series’ opening concert, along with works by Barbara Strozzi, a courtesan, and Isabella Leonardi, an Ursuline nun, among others. It seems a great study in contrast to hear the works of a courtesan, who writes in her “O Maria”: “She has conformed the hearts of all to her virtue, and she delights in the heritage of the Lord.”

“Luckily they’re inventing opera at the same time, and Monteverdi was an opera composer,” said Edwards. “So he’s using the same tricks as he would use to make you fall in love with Orfeo that he uses those to make you fall in love with the Virgin Mary.”

Monteverdi (who in addition to being a popular opera composer was also the maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s in Venice) was a composer whose work was a foremost example of the transition between the polyphony of the Renaissance to the sheer emotionalism and complexity of Baroque music. This fit perfectly into the Counter-Reformation’s integration of secular elements to reinforce the faith.

“In some ways it’s similar to today; there’s a lot of changes in society... all of a sudden they have access to information. There are all these changes in the music, so how do you integrate things like this? We have some of the same problems in church music today,” said Edwards.

Take Monteverdi’s “Nigra sum,” for example, with text like: “I am black but comely, daughters of Jerusalem. Therefore the king has delighted in me and brought me to his chamber and said to me, ‘Arise, my love, and come.’ ”

This particular piece is from his Mass for six voices to the Most Holy Virgin, which Monteverdi notes is “suitable for the chapels or chambers of princes.” It seems unlikely we would hear such textual interpretation today.

“I think the music in this concert is composed so successfully that I think it can show us something too,” said Edwards of its lasting effect.

Along with Fishel and Edwards, audiences of the series will be able to see performances by Tafelmusik’s Christopher Verrette and Patricia Ahern (Baroque violin), and the noted organist Philip Fournier (organist and music director at St. Vincent de Paul Church). Additionally, several of the concerts in the series will feature pre-performance talks by some of the leading scholars in the field.

“That scholarship that we’ve been doing with these different people... it’s silly to do scholarship on the cultural context of performance, and then not do the music,” said Edwards.

“Luckily, with our residency at St. Mike’s, that’s given us a place to present some of this stuff to a real audience.”

For more see or www.stmikes.

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