Duo expands musical horizons of library audience

By Ben Nyberg

The first of the 2013-2014 KSU Library chamber music season programs featured Patricia Thompson, mezzo-soprano, and John Lenti, theorobo, in a short Hemisphere Room recital of mostly seventeenth-century, mostly Italian works this past Friday evening.

From their launch back in February of 2006, Friends of the Library presentations have invariably been anchored by The Room’s very own lovingly restored (thanks to former Manhattanite Charles Faulk) Mason Hamlin concert grand, so the performance space felt a little bare with it bundled off to one side. It will return to its accustomed position of prominence for the series’ next concert on January 24, 2014.

But attendees’ advance worries about the evening’s program probably had less to do with the lack of a piano than with the narrow confines of the repertory on offer. After all, how much seventeenth-century Italian music for voice and theorobo that’s still worth hearing today can there be?

Quite a bit, as it turns out, and quite varied, too, despite the prevailing darkness of tone and message shared by four of the five vocals. What kept the program from any sense of textural sameness or idiomatic repetition was the absolute commitment of both artists to observing and—with meticulously focused energy—conveying each turn of verbal and instrumental phrase, every change of shade, however slight.

Alternating works for accompanied voice with solo instrumental pieces also contributed to sustaining a diversity of appeal. Mr. Lenti’s lively and instructive commentaries prior to his contributions added a further, most welcome “lecture/demonstration” element to the overall mix.

One of his observations, that the birth of opera in effect brought the death of theorbo-supported song, seemed especially ironic in that the evening’s every vocal carried in utero the opera-child so soon to be born. Call them what you like, they were all in fact extended recitatives of the sort that several of the program’s composers were about to employ (if they hadn’t already) in operas of their own.

Bringing to the texts an expressive intensity that befitted their operatic nature, Thompson interpreted their emotional values with a sympathetic grasp that effectively revealed their inherent drama, all without sacrificing beauty of vocal production.

Lenti’s technical skills and artistic sensitivity were equally impressive, whether solo or in partnership. Assured mastery of his instrument, enhanced by his obvious devotion to its unique capabilities, lent his playing a special persuasiveness.

The talents of both, evident throughout the program, joined in a particularly satisfying finale, Henry Purcell’s lovely evening hymn, “Now that the sun hath veil’d his light,” which whisked us away from the troubles that so tormented the program’s prior outpourings off to a happier place, complete with a triumphant closing alleluia.

If this duo’s principal intent was to expand our musical horizons, I believe I speak for all present in calling their mission accomplished. They did their half of the job to perfection. But sure as we may be that we’re doing our part just as well, we could in fact learn to treat our fellow listeners better, contribute less distraction to the ambience.

We could, for instance, muffle barking coughs, quiet the rattle of program notes (admittedly not easy when coping with 7 pages of them), leave wine glasses outside and neutralize all portable phones (and their flash photo capacity) for the duration.

Sitting still and paying attention really are the watchwords of an activist audience.

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