Monday, June 22, 2009

The Magnificat Blog Has Moved!

The Magnificat Weblog has moved to a new URL (with a new design as well!): All the content in this blog has been imported to the new one. This blog will remain as an archive.

Please visit the new blog!

Monday, June 01, 2009

The 17th Century Meets the 21st: Magnificat Now on Facebook and Twitter

Magnificat has launched a Facebook Page and you are all encouraged to become "fans" (including all who already are!) The page currently has a discography, notice of upcoming events, and lots of other information about Magnificat. Soon we will have the capability to post mp3s and videos. Our page can be visited by clicking here.

We are also on Twitter, so those of you who dwell in Twitterspace please follow us @MagnificatMusic. We are working to develop a discussion of Baroque music and culture in this new medium as a way of increasing interest in Magnificat and early music in general.

Georg Muffat's Birthday and David Wilson's Translation and Commentary

Georg Muffat was born on June 1 in 1653. A special day for Jubilate personnel manager, Magnificat violinist, Muffat expert and all around great guy David Wilson, who, in 2001, published a translation of texts from Florilegium Primum, Florilegium Secundum, and Auserlesene Instrumentalmusik together with very enlightening commentary on performance practice issues.

Born in Savoy, Muffat studied with Lully in Paris in the 1660s and then studied law at Ingolstadt. According to the biographical blurb at Goldberg Magazine, he later traveled to Vienna but could not obtain an official appointment and subsequently appeared in Prague (1677), ultimately finding a position in Salzburg in the service of Archbishop Max Gandolf, a post he held for over ten years.

He was given leave to travel in the 1680s and studied in Rome with Pasquini ; some of his compositions were performed in Corelli 's house. From 1690 until his death he was Kapellmeister to Johann Philipp von Lamberg, Bishop of Passau.

Muffat was instrumental in bringing the French and Italian styles into German- speaking countries, the prefaces to his published works providing details about Lully 's and Corelli 's practice for his German audience. David's book was reviewed by Kris Worsley in the Frankfurter Zeitschrift für Musikwissenschaft, excerpted below. The full review can be read here. Several pages can be read at Google Books. It can be ordered here.

The complex diversity of Georg Muffat’s musical inheritance causes many problems for the modern performer. The significance of his studies in France (with Lully) may be weighed up against that of his later affinity to Austria and Italy. This book provides an extremely useful translation of Muffat’s own instructions on the correct approach to his works. David K. Wilson (who was handed the project by the late Thomas Binkley) sets out to provide a complete, self-contained guide to Muffat’s writings on performance practice, prefacing the translations with a biographical sketch of Georg Muffat, and following them with a commentary which discusses the implications of these writings on Muffat's Intentions, Instruments, Pitch and Temperament, Techniques, German Performance Practice, and Performance Settings.

The thoroughness of the study does help to clarify the confusion that all too easily results from Muffat’s own cosmopolitan style (Wilson admits that "questions can be asked about how representative of French music of the seventeenth century Muffat’s writings actually are" (page 119)). The biographical sketch that opens the volume stresses the importance of the political circumstances that framed Muffat’s life, from his beginnings in Savoy, his presumed studies with Lully in Paris, and his further travels to Vienna, Salzburg and Rome and his eventual settling in Passau. This emphasis on Muffat’s travels brings a welcome sense of clarity to the problem of the composer’s stylistic diversity and enlightens many of his comments in the texts in a most direct way.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Suzanne Cusick's "Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court" to be Published Next Month

Magnificat will open our 2009-2010 season with Francesca Caccini's opera "The Liberation of Ruggiero". I am looking forward to reading New York University Professor Suzanne Cusick's new book about this remarkable composer. The book is available for order on the University of Chicago Press website. The synopsis provided by the publisher follows:

A contemporary of Shakespeare and Monteverdi, and a colleague of Galileo and Artemisia Gentileschi at the Medici court, Francesca Caccini was a dominant figure of musical life there for thirty years. Dazzling listeners with the transformative power of her performances and the sparkling wit of the music she composed for more than a dozen court theatricals, Caccini is best remembered today as the first woman to have composed opera. Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court reveals, for the first time, how this multitalented composer established a fully professional musical career at a time when virtually no other women were able to achieve comparable success.

Suzanne Cusick argues that Caccini’s career depended on the usefulness of her talents to the political agenda of Grand Duchess Christine de Lorraine, Tuscany’s de facto regent from 1606 to 1636. Drawing on Classical and feminist theory, Cusick shows how the music Caccini made for the Medici court sustained the culture that enabled Christine’s power, thereby also supporting the sexual and political aims of its women. A CD of rare recorded samples of Caccini’s oeuvre, specially prepared, further enhances this long-awaited study.

In bringing Caccini’s surprising story so vividly to life, Cusick ultimately illuminates how music making functioned in early modern Italy as a significant medium for the circulation of power.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Magnificat Looking Forward to the Return of the Puppets

On the weekend of October 16-18, 2009, Manificat will join forces with Northwest Puppet Theater in a production first mounted in Seattle in 2007. Below is a review of that production from the Seattle Post Intelligencer. We look forward to working with the Stephen and Chris Carter and their troupe of wooden friends!

Marionettes Make Fine Work of Italian Opera

by Phillipa Kiraly (originally posted on April 22, 2007 at the Seattle Post Intelligencer)

Kudos to the Northwest Puppet Center for doing it yet again: opera in miniature with all the trimmings. On Friday night, "The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina," by Francesca Caccini, opened at the center with five singers, four musicians, more than 30 puppets and a wave machine.

"Ruggiero" was one of the earliest operas, written in 1625; the first written by a woman -- Caccini was a younger contemporary of composer Claudio Monteverdi; and the first to be presented outside Italy -- in Poland in 1628.

Like many Baroque operas, it was originally presented full size on a lavish scale with complicated stage machinery and effects, and the story is a legend complete with sorcery, battles, gods, animals and talking trees.

Northwest Puppet Center's production includes a dragon that blasts smoke, dancing fish and seahorses, a sea creature spewing forth the character Pulcinella, a goddess flying in on a griffin and a sheep that, well, I'm not giving away what it does.

Sung in Italian with supertitles, with the spoken words in English, the opera is largely recitative, but with duets and trios as well.

Read the Entire Article at The Seattle Post Intelligencer

Friday, May 22, 2009

Puppets, Nuns, Melodies, and Masterpieces: Magnificat’s 18th Season Takes a Tour of Italy

[UPDATE: Magnificat's February Concerts will feature music by the Venetian composer Alessandro Grandi.] Magnificat’s 18th Season will be a grand tour through four Italian cities: Florence, Milan, Venice, and Mantua. Along the way, we will hear a delightful puppet opera, a glorious mass for Christmas, a program of madrigals and motets, and perhaps the greatest masterpiece of the early Baroque. The season feature music by two remarkable women and two pioneers of the new music of the seventeenth century.

The notion of constructing a season as a tour of Italy began in a trip I took in the summer of 2008. While in Milan I made a pilgrimage to Cozzolani’s convent, Santa Radegonda, now a multiplex cinema ("Sex in the City" was premiering that day) and wandered around the marvelous Duomo. I also visited Florence, where so many of the radical ideas that shaped the music of the seventeenth century were first articulated. Throughout the journey, I was struck by how strongly the aesthetic of the seicento survives in spite of the noise of the intervening centuries.

So much of what we consider to be “modern” has its roots in the new ideas of the seventeenth century. The Earth went from being the center of the universe to a speck in the midst of an infinite eternity. Artists and poets sought to depict the subtleties of human emotion through jarring contrast and exaggeration. Composers gave us opera, the virtuoso, and art music for the masses. And almost every bold new idea began in the collection of duchies, independent cities, republics, and colonies that we now know collectively as Italy.

Given the 400th anniversary of the great and complex masterpiece of the seicento, Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, it seemed like an excellent idea to explore the various strands of the new music of the seventeenth century in the context of four cities: Florence, Milan, Venice, and Mantua. While certainly not a comprehensive list, these cities offer a broad perspective on the many artistic trends that so powerfully shaped the music of the entire continent.

October 18-20, 2009 - Florence: “The Liberation of Ruggiero” by Francesca Caccini
with The Northwest Puppet Theatre

Magnificat welcomes back the Northwest Puppet Theatre for a production of the only surviving opera by Francesca Caccini. The daughter of the father of the nuove musiche of the 17th century, Giulio Caccini, Francesca had a remarkable career in her own right, arguably the first “diva”, an accomplished composer, and an independent woman centuries ahead of her time.

December 4-6, 2009 - Milan: Christmas Mass by Chiara Margarita Cozzolani.

By popular demand, Magnificat will revisit the music from the remarkable Benedictine nun, Chiara Margarita Cozzolani. In this program, Cozzolani’s setting of the Mass will be performed together with seasonal motets for solo voices and traditional chant.

February 12-14, 2010 - Venice: "Celesti fiori" by Alessandro Grandi

A student of Giovanni Gabrieli, Grandi served as an assistant to Monteverdi at San Marco and was a prolific composer of vocal chamber music in the evolving concerto style of the first qurter of the 17th Century. His unfailing gift for melody and daring use of harmony resulted in initimate and deeply expressive music that speaks across the centuries with clarity and power. Most of the motets and madrigals performed on this program will be modern premieres.

April 23-25, 2010 - Mantua: Vespro della Beata Vergine by Claudio Monteverdi

With his famous Vespers of 1610 Monteverdi, consciously melded the competing styles of old and new that fueled the great musical debate of the new century. Based on ancient psalm tones, the polyphonic settings of the Vespers liturgy offer a kaleidoscopic tour through the new musical styles that were evolving at the time. Magnificat will be joined by The Whole Noyse in these performances.

Details of the season will be available soon on Magnificat's new website.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

San Francisco Chronicle Review: 'Venere, Amore e Ragione'

by Joshua Kosman

This review was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 7, 2009.

The thing about love, as most people learn sooner or later, is that it stubbornly refuses to be guided by the precepts of logic and rationality. A pretty smile, an enticing gaze, some shapely body part or other, and boom - there goes common sense.

Not so in "Venere, Amore e Ragione" ("Venus, Cupid and Reason"), the comely little musical entertainment presented over the weekend by the early-music ensemble Magnificat. In Alessandro Scarlatti's serenata, probably first performed in Rome in 1706, Cupid throws off his blindfold, and amid great rejoicing by the pastoral crowds, embraces Reason as his mentor.

Uh-huh. And you thought 19th century operas were unrealistic.

The charms of this work, scored for three singers in the title roles and a complement of six instrumentalists, are slight but genuine. Compared with composers writing even 10 or 20 years later, Scarlatti works on a compact scale, writing terse little arias that make their points and hurry away again.

Paradoxically, perhaps, his music is better appreciated in full-length operas, where these gemlike miniatures acquire dramatic heft through sheer accumulation. In a modest pastoral like "Venere, Amore e Ragione" - which includes scarcely an hour's worth of music - a listener can sup contentedly enough on musical canapes while waiting in vain for a meatier dish.

Still, there is no denying the vigor, stylishness and sheer beauty of Scarlatti's score, which moves briskly through its set pieces and culminates, like some Baroque version of "Der Rosenkavalier," with a lushly scored trio for the three female voices. There's also a surprise ending (musical, not textual) to rival anything concocted by O. Henry.

Saturday's performance at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Berkeley brought out these appealing qualities without alleviating the essential modesty of the undertaking. The instrumental playing, led from the harpsichord by Hanneke van Proosdij, was lively and evocative, with occasional bursts of recorder to leaven the string textures.

The vocal casting was evidently done in accordance with a principle whereby only singers named Jennifer need apply. Among these, soprano Jennifer Ellis Kampani was the standout, singing the role of Cupid with a bright, sweeping tone and effortlessly negotiating the sometimes daunting thickets of coloratura writing in the part. One aria, "D'amor l'accesa face" ("The burning torch of love"), proved to be the dramatic climax of the evening, a bravura showpiece that Ellis Kampani brought home superbly.

Soprano Jennifer Paulino made a cool, sweet-toned but rather impassive Venus. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane's recessive performance as Reason made that luminary's ultimate triumph seem all the more implausible.

E-mail Joshua Kosman at

SFCV Review of Scarlatti Concert: In Light of Reason

by Joseph Sargent

This review was posted at
San Francisco Classical Voice on April 6, 2009.

An unmistakable allure surrounds concerts that bring long-neglected music into the new light of day. Aside from the sheer novelty of presenting repertory otherwise seldom available in concert or on recordings, these efforts can prove highly memorable for the listener, who comes away with a distinct feeling of having experienced something special. Such encounters happen frequently with Warren Stewart’s Baroque ensemble Magnificat, whose penchant for seeking out hidden treasures often yields delightful performances of music by underappreciated composers.

For Magnificat’s latest concert set, the presumptive diamond in the rough was a genre rather than a composer. Alessandro Scarlatti’s Venere, Amore, e Ragione (Venus, Cupid, and Reason) is a “serenata” — a term with slippery historical connotations but that in Scarlatti’s day denoted a festive, cantatalike work associated with important occasions, from grand state affairs to more intimate celebrations. Its text, by the Roman poet Silvio Stampiglia, details a dispute between Venus and Reason involving the latter’s newfound influence over Cupid, with Venus conceding in the end that love guided by reason yields better lovers.

Although Scarlatti wrote nearly two dozen serenatas during his lifetime, these pieces tend to play second fiddle to his better-known operas and solo-voice chamber cantatas. Compounding the obscurity of Venere, Amore, e Ragione is a lack of information about its original performance context. (Educated guesses place the work around 1706, in association with the composer’s election to the Roman literary academy/cultural institution Accademia dell’Arcadia.)

Of course, the act of reviving seldom-heard works loses some luster if the piece itself lacks charisma. Hearing Magnificat’s performance on Friday in Palo Alto’s First Lutheran Church, I was struck by the generic, repetitive quality of much of this music. Certainly this can be attributed, at least partially, to the relentless alternations of recitative and arias and to standardized da capo aria structures typical of Baroque practice. But even allowing for these structural rigidities, Scarlatti’s music comes off as merely serviceable: pleasant but largely uninspired.

Persuasive Proponent of Scarlatti

All this should take nothing away from Magnificat’s actual performance, which lived up fully to this ensemble’s usual high standards. If any ensemble were to advocate for Scarlatti’s serenatas through compelling performances, this is the one. Magnificat’s sterling trio of vocalists and sextet of instrumentalists approached the piece with great elegance, imparting a sense of grace, fluidity, and intimacy. Vocal qualities were exquisitely matched to the characters portrayed, with soprano Jennifer Paulino’s warm, vibrant sound perfectly suited to the sensual Venus. Jennifer Ellis Kampani’s bright, clarion soprano ably captured the youthful Cupid, while the rich, magisterial quality of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane offered a fine counterbalance as the more grounded Reason.

Amid Scarlatti’s pervasive stylistic homogeneity, select moments of variety proved to be the evening’s highlights. Reason’s aria “Quella ninfa d’accese pupille” (That nymph with inflamed eyes) featured Lane in a zestful performance, emphasizing the nymph’s “beautiful eyes” and “passionate splendor.” The exclusive use of low-sounding instruments for accompaniment offered an appealing contrast, even if intonation issues occasionally marred the texture.

The performers handled isolated instances of florid coloratura expertly. Kampani’s confident declamation of “D’amor l’accesa face” (If the burning torch of love), in perfect counterpoint with violinists Rob Diggins and Jolianne von Einem, invigorated the pyrotechnics of this paean to love blended with reason. All three vocalists triumphed in the serenata’s finale, “Impari ad amar bene” (Learn to love well), coming together in a virtuoso display of vocal agility, impeccable blend, and fine balance, right up to the surprisingly inconclusive final chord.

The instrumental consort, solid throughout, shone brightest in a dance movement that perfectly captured the rustic character of nimble nymphs and shepherds in jubilant celebration. Especially engaging were the delightful string portamentos and the ever-steady harmonic support from the dynamic duo of harpsichordist Hanneke van Proosdij and theorbist David Tayler.

Joseph Sargent, a doctoral candidate in musicology at Stanford University, is a professional writer and editor as well as a performer, conductor, and scholar of early music.