Baroque Voices at The Music Room
Rachel Ambrose Evans, Joy Smith
The Music Room, 26 October 2017
One of the most rewarding aspects of this reviewing lark has been spotting talented young musicians in the early stages of their musical careers. There are several well-known singers who I first noticed singing in choirs, and many instrumentalists who I first heard in their student days. One such singer is the soprano Rachel Ambrose Evans, who I first noticed after a tiny step-out-from-the-choir role in a Proms concert and, shortly afterwards, as a chorus fairy in a production of the Fairy Queen, noticing on both occasions what I consider to be an ideal ‘early music’ voice. That early music voice was very apparent in Rachel’s concert with harpist Joy Smith in The Music Room, hidden away above an antique emporium close to London’s Oxford Street, and until now used as an exhibition and events space. It was part of a new series of lunchtime concerts.
Their programme was focussed on Monteverdi and his Italian contemporaries Caccini, d’India, Mazzochi and Peri. Amongst the inevitable goings-on of love-lorn shepherds and nymphs of most of the pieces was one religious sonnet, Mazzocchi’s chromatically intense Lagrime amare, a lament of Mary at the foot of the Cross published in 1724. Unusual in its treatment of harmony, it also includes unusual indications asking for the use of portamento (sliding between two notes, in a style that was to become almost ubiquitous in very much later operatic singing), in the first instance on the second word amare. Rachel Ambrose Evans reflected the emotionally wrought text beautifully, notably at the harmonic twists on the concluding words da Giesú ferito (of the wounded Jesus).
The other piece not of Arcadian origin was the opening of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, where La Musica comes to bring peace to every troubled heart by singing with her golden lyre. During this Rachel moved across the stage area, standing right next to the harp for the section about her lyre – a very effective but simple bit of staging. Joy Smith introduced her triple harp, and explained one of the often unknown marvels of continuo players (whether on keyboards, theorbos or harps) where frequently complex and virtuosic music is improvised from a single line of bass notes in the score. Joy Smith’s demonstrating of this skill during her accompaniments was exemplary, as was her clever solo improvisation on a Tarantella – a dance intended to cure people bitten by the spider which varied in style according to mood, not of the sufferer but, as Joy explained, of the spider.
Rachel Ambrose Evans also introduced a number of her pieces in a very effective style, sometimes by just reading one or two of the lines – as in the concluding piece where, after several songs of loss and romantic despair, the focus was on dancing and the “bewitching eyes that pour forth the thousand delights that lie within the breast”. She described an earlier piece (d’India’s Vorrei baciarti, I Filli) as “flirting and playful” explaining that it would be inevitable that the protagonists would eventually kiss – it was just a case of “where”.
Whatever the delights of the music, it was the outstanding singing of Rachel Ambrose Evans that was paramount. She has a consistent tone over a wide range, and a clear and expressive voice, underlain by a gently effective inflexion rather than anything like a true vibrato. She sang with poise, using her hands and facial expressions subtly, with no attempt at show or pretention. She has a clear understanding of the performance of this repertoire, with its focus on musical and textural expression.
One issue with The Music Room that will need to be addressed if it is to succeed as a performance space is its poor acoustics. It is a blank-walled square room with large columns in the middle provided many reflecting surfaces, but with no attempt at sound absorption or control of specific frequencies. This makes the room very ‘boomy’ to sing in. On this occasion, with a soprano singer, the acoustics reinforced the upper frequencies of the voice, amplifying the sound of the highest notes. Sopranos often forget that their sound naturally gets louder as they go higher, and don’t always remember to reduce the volume as they get higher. But on this occasion, the fault lay far more with the acoustics than the singer. Dealing with excessive reverberation is comparatively easy – the opposite problem is almost impossible to solve.