By Patrick Neas, The Kansas City Star
They don’t throw house parties like they used to.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, a Roman aristocrat might invite his friends to his villa in the country to view his sculpture collection, which might include a new addition by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. After an afternoon of hunting and feasting, the guests would retire to the nobleman’s chambers, where they would enjoy an evening of the most ethereal music based on high-minded themes such as love, loss and the ephemeral quality of life.
You’ll have an opportunity to enter this rarefied world when the Friends of Chamber Music presents the early music ensemble Atalante in “Lamenti Antichi: Ancient Laments From Greece, Arabia, Turkey and the Holy Land” as told in 17th-century Roman musical narratives. When Atalante performed this program at the Boston Early Music Festival, it was a hit with audiences. There was something about this music, totally unlike anything heard today, that touched the hearts of 21st-century listeners craving depth of emotion instead of superficiality. And with only five members (two vocalists and three instrumentalists), Atalante performs with the intimacy one would have experienced in a nobleman’s chambers.
“It’s a culture people don’t know about anymore because it’s all been hidden away,” said Erin Headley, founder and artistic director of the group. Headley was introduced to early music as a student at Washington University in St. Louis. She studied cello, but while doing research at St. Louis University, she discovered the lirone, a beautiful bowed instrument with 14 gut strings that is played between the knees like a cello.
“I found out that the lirone’s real niche was in Rome and then died out after the 18th century,” she said. “You bow four or five of those strings together to play chords. You can only bow in groups. What comes out is this really wonderful, eerie kind of heart-rending sound, sort of like an organ. Some lirones are very theatrical-looking. It’s something strange and wonderful that only comes out at special times.” Atalante also employes the chamber organ, harpsichord, a long-necked lute called a chitarrone and an Italian triple harp, which has three strings and no pedal. Besides the lirone, Headley also will play the viola da gamba.
“I can’t play the lirone the whole time,” she said. “It would be like having chocolate for a three-course meal.” In addition to the instruments, the performers themselves, with their unique backgrounds, will bring authenticity to these laments from Greece and the Middle East.
“The soprano is Jordanian-American, but she lives in Cologne,” Headley said. “The mezzo is Greek and lives in Athens, the harpsichordist is German and he lives in Bremen and our harpist is Irish and she lives outside Dublin. We’re all gathering together for this tour one by one.” The laments Atalante will perform are narratives describing the sorrows and tragedies of figures from the Bible and the classical era. For example, there’s Zaida, a Turkish woman, mourning her lover Mustapha, taken away by pirates, and there’s Helen of Troy, older and wistful, reflecting on her life.
“Helen is looking in the mirror and saying how could all of this have happened,” Headley said. “She’s an old woman now and everything’s gone. So it’s a lament on vanity, telling youth not to fritter away their lives because it’ll be over very quickly. That’s a typical theme of this period.” The stories will be conveyed not only through music, but also through costume. An Italian designer has created dresses for the performance that Headley says give the impression of paintings from the Renaissance and Baroque.
“It’s like somebody steps out of a painting and has a narrative lament that they sing,” she said. “It’s like looking at a painting, but it comes alive.” In the 18th century these sorts of concerts, called academies, were contemplations on noble thoughts, inspiring listeners to reflect on life’s true meaning. How will such subtle beauty play with a 21st-century audience numbed by reality TV, head-banging rock music and the overall garishness of contemporary life?
“All of this is so hard to sell to people,” Headley said. “You have to have seen it and heard it to really understand why it’s so exquisite and appealing. But if you do, I think you’ll agree with those who attended academies in the 18th century that it’s marvelous and raises your soul to heaven.”