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Two for the Show

February 19, 2006

Monica Huggett

Bruce Dickey

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By Rebekah Ahrendt

Like the beautiful statue livened by Pygmalion's love, Ensemble Galatea in turn breathed new vigor into a program of Italian music from the late 16th and early 17th centuries. San Francisco's St. Gregory of Nyssa was ablaze Sunday afternoon with their fiery performance of this virtuosic and sometimes highly unusual music.

Galatea features some of the finest musicians for this repertory in the world today. With Monica Huggett on violin and Bruce Dickey on cornett, expectations are always high. And were they ever rewarded — especially when accompanied by the brilliant continuo trio of director Paul Beier on chitarrone (theorbo), Richard Savino on guitar, and Gianluca Capuano, organ.

The program began and ended with sonatas by Giovanni Battista Buonamente, a Franciscan friar and violin virtuoso who was one of the early cultivators of a violinistic style. He was also one of the first Italians to carry his talents northward, working in Vienna and Prague. Despite his penchant for violin, Buonamente, like many composers of his age, wrote equally for the cornett. As Bruce Dickey explained to the audience, at this time in the 17th century, the violin and cornett crossed paths as equals, as the noble wind was declining and the brash string ascending. Composers like Buonamente, Giovanni Battista Fontana, and Francesco Rognoni indicated that their music could be played by violins, or cornetts, or — so implied — both together.

Engaging interplay

Huggett and Dickey thus engaged in friendly rivalry in the duo sonatas of these three composers. The competitive qualities of the two instruments were best expressed, however, in two diminutions on the same madrigal. The period saw an explosion of treatises on diminution — the art of embellishing a pre-existing tune with many small notes — complete with examples on how the experts did it. This school of improvisation has become an important source of repertory and technique for early-music performers today. Two versions of the popular madrigal by Palestrina, Io son ferito, were featured on this program.

Dickey shone in the Giovanni Battista Bovicelli pieces. Though written for the voice, they are especially apt for the vocal qualities of the cornett. Bovicelli represents the height of skill in diminution, with extremely florid lines and subtle shifts in harmonic ornamentation. (Today we might call them “blue” notes.) Accompanied only by the sensitive organ playing of Capuano, Dickey fully exploited the beautiful tones of his instrument. His natural reserve, demanded by the extreme technical difficulty of the cornett, helped Dickey come across as the “straight man” of the group.

How different then was Huggett's performance of Francesco Rognoni's diminutions on the same tune. Written by a violin virtuoso, these are full of what Huggett called “the ego-driven virtuosity that is the hallmark of the violin.” The instrument sparkled, brayed, and danced under her hands, fully displaying its lowbrow origins. Beier provided an earthy counterpoint on the chitarrone that helped unite the suave sound of the organ with the shameless violin.

Leave no player behind

Diminutions weren't only for the bowed or blown, as Beier demonstrated later in the program. Another of Palestrina's greatest hits, Vestiva i colli, provided the basis for Giovanni Antonio Terzi's florid arrangement. This piece proved that pluckers are just as good at quick scalar passages and melodies as anyone else. Beier's super technique brought out every voice in the original madrigal as well as the elaborate ornaments, covering a vast range on the instrument.

That greatest of polyphonic instruments, the organ, also received its moment in the diminished sun. Working with perhaps the most popular madrigal of the age, Cipriano de Rore's Anchor che co'l partire, Andrea Gabrieli wrote an organ intabulation to rival any other master of diminution. Capuano performed this beautifully: just reserved enough, and just emotive enough to be completely sexy and satisfying.

On the more raucous and unusual end, there was Giovanni Battista Granata's Toccata for guitar, violin, and continuo. Granata was a barber and guitar virtuoso who lived and worked in Bologna in the mid-17th century. Like a mini-guitar-concerto, the piece featured only the occasional ritornello for the violin. Mostly, it was a showpiece for expert guitarist Savino, whose spirited interpretation brought the piece to shining life. Especially delicious were his perfect double trills.

I feel fortunate to have been at this concert. The rest of the audience apparently did too, for their thunderous applause was well-rewarded with a charming canzona by Lodovico Viadana for two treble instruments and continuo as encore. Here the cornett-violin competition reached its height, with the two instruments mimicking, mocking, and chasing each other around. The lush chitarrone of Beier, the bright guitar of Savino, and the debonair organ of Capuano were the perfect counterpoint to Huggett and Dickey.

(Rebekah Ahrendt holds the artist's diploma in viola da gamba and historical performance practice from the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. Currently, she is a graduate student in historical musicology at UC Berkeley.)

©2006 Rebekah Ahrendt, all rights reserved