I Just Really Want A Theorbo: Review of the First Half of Kansas City Baroque Consortium’s “The Donne, The Dueling, and the Divine”

By John Chittum

Sometimes, you look at a program and get excited. Other times a program may appear daunting. Maybe there’s a work you’ve heard of, but have never actually heard. Maybe it’s a program of music you’re not entirely sure if you’ll like. Then there are programs like Kansas City Baroque Consortium’s (KCBC) “The Donne, The Dueling, and the Divine” that elicit both excitement and trepidation. This year, KCBC’s annual summer series focuses on women in music. This concert focused on the voices of women, literally as singers, and figuratively as composers. The concert also covered a wide breadth of time, spanning from circa 1570 all the way to the eighteenth century. Even though I was excited to hear the program, I was worried that the length would be more than I could handle on a Friday at 7:30 pm. The first half included thirteen pieces. I attended the pre-concert talk at 6:30, adding an hour to the program length. I prepared myself for the marathon, notebook in hand, and ears ready to hear a concert of music that is rarely performed in Kansas City.

The concert started off with some unfortunate news. Due to some printing issues, there would be no printed program, requiring me to take even more thorough notes than usual. Instead, the program note writer, Jeff Noonan, provided short notes between pieces. This was handled quite well, considering the circumstances. Noonan’s remarks were enlightening and clever throughout. It was a let down not just because I like printed programs, but because KCBC’s printed programs are normally visually beautiful and chock full of great information. I invite everyone to check out the program online (made available after the concert), to get a wonderful history lesson, including gorgeous images. The one small critique of the program is that it lacks a list of the performers for specific pieces.

The singers, Suzanne Anderson, Kayleigh Aytes, and Lindsey Lang, were asked to read the translations of texts for the songs out loud to the audience. As the night went on, they took on this role more and more informally, providing a few good laughs. It’s important to remember that not every song written is unique, deep, or require the text to be enjoyed.

The program featured the three singers posing as a group like the concerto delle donne or the “Singing ladies of Ferrara.”  While only one piece (by Luzzaschi) was specifically for that vocal collection, it offered an historical connection to the theme “women in music.” The first piece was Sonata Sopra ‘La Monica’ by Biagio Marini. It was a nice intro, although the group made it sound a bit like a warm up. A trio of pieces by Barbara Strozzi came next. The trio of Anderson, Aytes, and Lang proved up to the task, though in their first song (Le tre grazie) there were some balance issues. However, the performers settled in as an ensemble after the first pieces. Serenata con violini (Sinfonia) followed. Jeff Noonan described the piece as having unexpected crunchy moments. It was an apt description, with harmonic progressions and passing dissonances that surprised and delighted. Liberta featured all three singers again, who handled long florid passages expertly. If they didn’t often perform together it didn’t show in the second Liberta. They passed phrases wonderfully, and expertly followed Noonan, who was leading from the theorbo.

After a Passacaglio by Biagio Marini, we heard the first song for solo singer, L’Eraclito amoroso by Barbara Strozzi. Both pieces featured a descending four-note motif that Noonan explained was a common lament theme. This was one of my favorite pieces from the evening, and Suzanne Anderson sang it beautifully. Noonan did a fabulous job on continuo, filling out the descending theme and creating a more florid line over the figured bass as the piece progressed. It helped drive the energy of the piece toward the climax. To this point in the concert, Noonan had been performing on the theorbo, a beautiful instrument which I now covet. There’s something about the almost comical size of the instrument, along with the beautiful, mellow tones it creates that draw me to it. It fits in with my fascination with the tromba marina for size, and the nyckelharpa for beauty and unique character.

For the next set Noonan picked up an archlute. He remarked that the archlute and theorbo are closely enough related to be “dangerous” for a performer. Canzon prima detta L’Astarosa by Pietro Paolo Melli was the first piece. Noonan was fantastic, shredding in ways that Yngwei Malmsteen could only dream. Lindsey Lang stepped up as vocal soloist beside Noonan for O primavera by the wonderfully named Luzzasco Luzzaschi. O primavera is filled with long melismas which Lang handled well. As well executed as the ornamentation was, the highest notes tended to be bright, leading to the intonation running sharp.

Sopra la Bergamasca by Marco Uccellini offered a chance to hear the full instrumental forces of KCBC. Noonan again switched instruments to the Renaissance guitar. The most popular of these is the vihuela. This Renaissance guitar, however, was more akin to a stronger, more full sounding ukulele. The ensemble sounded great, balancing well with the quieter Renaissance guitar, and showing off the more virtuosic violin lines. A mark of a good composer is knowing when to stop. Uccellini did just that with the Bergamasca. It was a fun, romping tune, following a repeated basic chord progression with a danceable melody. But after a few minutes it began to wear thin without adding in dance (my version of dancing is closer to “Caddyshack Gopher” than romp). 

Next, Kayleigh Aytes sang Voglio di Vita Uscir by Claudio Monteverdi. While the text announces “I want to leave life! I want these bones to crumble to dust,” the music felt more personal, more “I’m leaving you, specifically.” Aytes did well, but she missed a few great opportunities to lean in on some close harmonies to bring in a little more of the somber nuance to the piece. A duet from Monteverdi’s opera L’incoronazione di Poppea, “Pur ti miro,” came next. The program notes online rightly point out that while this particular song is attributed to Monteverdi, “Pur ti miro” was most likely written by a contemporary or student of Monteverdi. This is one of the most tragic love songs written. Occurring at the end of the opera, after Nero and Poppea depose of all their rivals, including the Nero’s former Empress Ottavia, the two sing of their love for one another. In the duet, Monteverdi uses the descending four-note motive from earlier, alluding to Poppea’s tragic demise. For a great version, watch Glyndeborne’s 2008 production of L’incoronazione di Poppea.

The final two pieces of the first half were based on the chaconne. The first was Chiaccona by Tarquino Merula. At this point in the concert, I was beginning to grow weary of the ground bass-style piece. Passacaglias, chaconnes, canzonas, and bergamascas all rely upon a repeated bass line. After hearing about half the works on the first half focusing on this compositional technique, I began to lose interest.

The final work on the first half was for all three singers, bringing the program full circle. Come dolce hoggi l’auretta by Monteverdi features a fair amount of imitation and dovetailing vocal lines. The trio of Anderson, Aytes, and Lang were fantastic in this setting, showing they’d settled in nicely by the end of the show. 

The Kansas City Baroque Consortium players, generally, performed very well. There were some boisterous moments where the strings would fall slightly out of tune with the continuo instruments. There were also some balance issues, where the violins would become too dominant, leaving the middle voices and continuo lost. KCBC, overall put on a fantastic concert. I say concert, because the length, with comments, came to well over an hour and a half. After over two and a half hours in the stiff wooden pews of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, my comrade and I had to step out and head down the street to Cancun Fiesta Fresh for dinner; I heard later that the concert lasted until 10 p.m., meaning that if you arrived for the pre-concert talk, the evening was well over three hours long. Normally, I’d be in for the long haul on concerts, but on Friday nights after a long work week, it can be hard to stay engaged. This is an important thing for all ensembles to remember (see my previous article for DiaKCritical).

Don’t let the length of this Kansas City Baroque Consortium concert faze you though. They’re loaded with fabulous works performed by skilled musicians. Kansas City is lucky to have a group engaged in bringing these under-performed works to the metro. And the city is even luckier that the group would take the initiative to do a summer series focusing on women in the Renaissance and Baroque. We need more groups like KCBC, and I can’t wait for their next show. 

Catch Kansas City Baroque Consortium at their last show, “Timeless Voices: Women Composers Baroque and Contemporary.” This concert features a new commission by local composer, Dr. Ingrid Stölzel, as well as works by Barbara Strozzi, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, and Francesca Caccini, with a pre-concert talk by Dr. Alison DeSimone. August 23rd, pre-concert talk 6:30, concert at 7:30, St. Paul’s Episcopal, 40th and Main, KCMO.