House of Monteverdi

House of Monteverdi
Spitalfields Music Festival 2017
St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch
2 December 2017

Things have changed at Spitalfields Music, as the opening night of their annual Winter Festival demonstrated. They have traditionally concentrated on early and contemporary music and, to a certain extent, continue that focus, although the target audience now seems very different from previous years. For the first of their new-style Winter festivals, they have bought in an Artistic Curator, André de Ridder, a conductor who crosses musical borders, not least in his involvement with electronic and pop music. His concept was for a festival made up of a series of ‘mini-festivals’, combining different genres and musicians. The focus is on much younger composers and performers that hitherto. The opening mini-festival, House of Monteverdi, was a 4½ hour marathon featuring four featured young composers, together with the four members of the Hermes Experiment, who jointly composed one of their pieces. The four world premieres and two UK premieres were contrasted and alternated with (and were sometimes influenced by), extracts from Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals – the Songs of Love and War. 

The contrast between ancient and modern couldn’t have been greater. Whereas Monteverdi explored the themes of love and war with considerable emotional and musical passion and intensity, the contemporary composers generally took a rather laid-back approach to composition, most approaching their task through evocatively ethereal and sometimes mysterious sounds, often at minimal volume.


Shades of Silence by Anna Thorvaldsdottir (pictured) was an example, although it departed from the Monteverdi theme of the festival, as did many other of the new works, including her Ad Genua (both UK premieres). That was a response to the cantata of the same name from Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostra. It was performed beautifully by soprano Katherine Manley, the singers of The Erebus Ensemble and the string quintet Stargaze, the whole very professionally conducted by Erebus director, Tom Williams.

The same cannot be said of the conductor for most of the Monteverdi works, whose flamboyant look-at-me antics were unsightly and distracting. His over-emphasising of the emotive drama in Monteverdi’s music was unnecessary. That said, the period instrumentalists of La Nuova Musica and the singers of The Erebus Ensemble were in excellent form, both in Monteverdi and the contemporary works.

Although several composers used specific Monteverdi pieces as an influence, they tended to focus on threads of Monteverdi’s musical lines, rather than the textural intensity of his music. For example, Jocelyn Campbell’s 20-minute long THEFT² was based on two-part extracts from Monteverdi, here played with a delightful delicacy of touch by Mayah Kadish, violin, and Gavin Kibble, viola da gamba. Josephine Stephenson offered two impressive world premieres, Between the war and Now that heaven and earth and the wind are silent. The former reflected one of the themes of the festival, an art installation by Mark Titchner There Will Be Two Wars (Songs of Love and War). Performed by the four musicians of The Hermes Experiment (pictured), the text followed the thread of four characters in war: a soldier, the soldier’s lover, the voice of war, and the voice of the Earth. Vocalist Héloïse Werner was exceptional in a demanding score.

Spit Hermes-Experiment.jpg

Josephine Stephenson’s Now that heaven and earth and the wind are silent is an a cappela choral piece based on the opening Monteverdi motet, Or che’ Ciel e la terra e’l Vento tace. Performed by The Erebus Ensemble, conducted by Tom Williams, this evocative piece used a series of harmonic clusters to support a stripped-down version of the original words focussing on a ‘universal voice’ rather than to sole protagonist of the original Petrarch text. Incidentally, the composer Josephine Stephenson (pictured) is a member of this choir and sang in this, and some other pieces.

Josephine Stephenson.jpg

The Hermes Experiment offered a world premiere of their own, A response to Valentini, a work composed collectively by the group, with elements of improvisation, based on the music of a contemporary of Monteverdi. Qasim Naqvi’s Fjoloy was an extraordinarily complex piece, composed on a synthesizer and transcribed into a graphic conductor’s score, with each member of The Erebus Ensemble hearing their parts through headphones linked to their mobile phones, apparently reciting the (Norwegian) text in any order they want, and in any combination. Liam Bryne (viola da gamba) was supposed to have performed the premiere of a new piece, but instead played Rognoni divisions on a De Rore motet to a background of a pre-prepared recording. Of the Monteverdi motets, the most impressive was Lamento della ninfa and Il Combattimento, with fine solo singing from Katherine Manley and Ben Johnson respectively.

One particular irritation was the noisy shutter clicks of an intrusive official photographer who moved around the audience, clicking away, even during some of the quietest moments of the evening. With silent cameras so common, and sound blimps or muzzles readily available for noisy SLR cameras, this is thoroughly unprofessional, both of the individual photographer and of Spitalfields Music, who allowed this to happen.

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