The Newberry Consort enjoys an honored place in Chicago’s musical landscape, pioneering local early music performance on period instruments.
The Consort is closing its 30th anniversary season this weekend with a typically offbeat program centered on Queen Christina of Sweden–a patroness of the arts who had a remarkable amount of music either inspired by her or dedicated to her.
Friday night’s concert at the Newberry Library’s Ruggles Hall showed the graceful blend of scholarship and superb musical values that have come to characterize the ensemble under married co-directors Ellen Hargis and David Douglass. An informal preconcert talk by the University of Chicago’s Robert Kendrick nicely set Christina’s life in context.
The masculine, pants-wearing Swedish queen was an unconventional individual who was as salty, petulant and demanding as she could be kind, generous and spiritual. Claims were made for the mannish Swedish royal as a lesbian or even a hermaphrodite during her lifetime—rumors that can obviously never be proven—but she was undeniably an eccentric and fascinating character.
Christina (1626-1689) was orphaned at age 5 when her father King Gustavas II Adolphus was killed in battle, and she ascended to the Swedish throne at age 18. Catholicism was illegal in Lutheran Sweden, and when the spiritually determined Christina decided to convert to the Roman church, she abdicated her throne. Christina embarked on a long journey from Stockholm to Rome, where her conversion was treated as a PR bonanza by the Holy See.
Honored as “The World’s Most Celebrated Catholic,” for the rest of her life she lived in Rome in her palazzo where she reigned again as a patroness of the arts. She was feted by musicians and encouraged many in return, including such composers as Luigi Rossi, Bernardo Pasquini and the young Arcangelo Corelli. Though she never married, Christina enjoyed an intensely passionate yet likely platonic relationship–a la Tchaikovsky and Madame von Meck–with Vatican Cardinal Decio Azzolino, who was sole heir at her death.
The Consort’s evening was organized into four sections, which provided a chronological roadmap of the queen’s history, aided by large projections of paintings and translated lyrics. Author Sara Paretsky delivered characterful readings from letters of Christina and her contemporaries, nicely tracing her very full life.
Led by violinist Douglass, the piquant, peppery sound of the Consort’s early instruments were on full display, from the lively lead-off item of Baldassare Donato’s Le Verginella to the elegantly pointed dance rhythms of Lully’s Ballet d’Alcidiane and the lovely Opus 1, no. 6 Sonata da chiesa of the youthful Corelli.
Lucas Harris was a double threat, manning the imposing archlute as well as the baroque guitar. On the latter he brought a light sensitive touch to Angelo Michele Bartolotti’s Prelude and Ciaccona. Harpsichordist Christopher Bagan displayed bracing virtuosity in Bernardo Pasquini’s Variations in G minor.
Vocal selections offered some of the most rewarding selections. In Rossi’s Un ferito cavaliero–written upon the death of Christina’s father–Hargis conveyed the varied states of this lament, with Erin Headley’s 15-string lirone providing dark instrumental coloring.
Antonio Cesti dedicated his operatic comedy L’Argia to Christina—a comedy with a cross-dressing heroine inspired by her. In the opera’s Prologue Hargis and countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen had great fun in their duetted passages as Thetis and Cupid, respectively. If the soprano’s intonation wasn’t always immaculate, Hargis handled the coloratura runs with fine agility.
Just two years out of Princeton, Cohen is a most impressive singer with a big career ahead of him. Showing a wide range and ease of production, the young countertenor sang easily with bright tone, fine expression and no trace of falsetto.
Hargis and Cohen also teamed up for Domenico Mazzocchi’s Pentito si rivolge a Dio and excerpts from Marco Marazzoli’s opera, La Vita Humana. In the allegorical style of the latter, the two singers made the most of the echo effects with Hargis as Life and Cohen offstage as Guilt.
Giacomo Carissimi’s Rimante in pace omai has no historic connection to Christina but its inclusion as a final work poignantly reflected the grief-stricken Azzolino at Christina’s death (the Cardinal died 51 days later). Hargis and Cohen conveyed the valedictory sorrow of this tribute to a departed love. Rossi’s elegiac Passacaglia nicely framed the duet, first performed by harpsichord and then reprised by the full ensemble.