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Encores & Curtain Calls: Ancient music rocks ... who knew?

“As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.”

— Henry Purcell, considered England’s first great composer

I used to think ancient music was, well, primitive — that it lacked the nuance and subtlety of richness with which subsequent centuries have fertilized the music of our own era. Think about it, century upon century of melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, structural and orchestral growth and refinement; new-born and more agile woodwind, brass and string instruments, greater technical efficiency and capacity, How could it not be the case that old music takes an expressive backseat to new?

I am here to officially renounce my rash youthful presumptions. But, in truth, I can’t take full credit for those delusions, for, it was in part, a result of the manner in which early music aficionados chose (and often still choose) to present their art during the time of my coming of age — the 1960s — as if performing it under glass and with a distinct, almost palpable ivory-tower preciosity. Who wouldn’t seek for the next opportunity to head for the nearest exit and breathe the fresh air of the real world again?

Being all my life badly allergic to “attitudes,” musical or otherwise, you can see the problem. The early music community has, as a musical body, been nothing if not excruciatingly self-congratulatory about their chosen art-form. It’s one thing to have a passion, not to mention to excel at it — which I’m all for — but it’s cause for much regret to fall prey to the temptation of artistic snobbery, no matter how gifted one may find oneself to be.

But the good news is, ancient music rocks! It, as they say, kicks butt and has the power to move us, thrill us, rivet us as much as any music anywhere ever has or will, as long as it is performed by people who still remain in contact with the oft-forgotten fact that they are human beings, those feisty, lusty, emotional, contradictory creatures we find so terribly dear and yet impossibly difficult to get along with.

Under the banner of “Music for a While,” a series of in-home concerts is being offered by early music devotees Nathaniel Cox of Brattleboro, Vt., and his lady, British-American soprano Agnes Coakley, in a style unique to the late 16th and early 17th centuries called Stile Moderno.

This is a chance to hear this rarely offered music by Cox and Coakley in venues much like those in which it was originally born: salon settings in private homes. Two Brattleboro area settings (one having already taken place) are hosting benefit concerts: One for the New England Youth Theater on Sunday, July 13, and one for the Brattleboro Music Center on Tuesday, July 22. In addition, they will perform at the First Universalist Parish in Chester, Vt., at 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 27. The house concerts will all begin promptly at 7:30 p.m.

Cox and Coakley inform us that they founded the group in Basel, Switzerland, in 2012 to “explore the music of the ‘new style’ that had its origins in late 16th-century Florence and spread throughout Europe at the beginning of the 17th century. Cox will accompany Coakley on theorbo, a form of bass lute developed at the end of the 16th century.”

Cox, who is an articulate spokesman for and purveyor of period music, had morphed from his youthful trumpet to the historically hamstrung cornetto a long-bore, woodwind hybrid along the lines of a narrow, trumpet-like archetype. Its sound is both poignant and soulful, wavering like the forlorn call of the loon across the New Hampshire lake across which I used to swim each morning.

In fact, so evocative was its voice that it immediately struck me as possibly an even more compelling sound for the opening of Stravinsky’s primal “Rite of Spring” than even the iconic bassoon that first caresses our ears. This caused me to wonder why any instruments should ever be considered “obsolete” or “extinct” in the sense of being fair game for use in contemporary composition.

Cox shared many of the same sentiments and assured me that there was, in fact, a contemporary use for these marginalized critters in both modern evocations of period music which is to say, 16th- and 17-century-style music being created by 21st-century composers, as well as direct use in contemporary works, a possibility which piques my own creative interest.

To this Cox added further skills upon the massive and many stringed, lute-like theorbo, a deep-voiced plucked instrument that makes use of many unplayed strings that nevertheless provide powerful sympathetic resonance.

While my assumption had been that the aesthetic climate of later eras was somehow better-positioned to make a truer call on the meaning and value of a given work, it was a concept that Cox, to his credit, rightly questioned. Yet even the great Purcell himself, sensing the increased potential for the future to further refine his art, wrote, “Poetry and painting have arrived to their perfection in our own country; music is yet but in its nonage, a forward child, which gives hope of what it may be hereafter in England, when the masters of it shall find more encouragement.”

I then found my mind in a rapid, cinematic montage suddenly racing through the masterworks of the centuries from pre-Palestrina to post-Pendereck. Could one actually say the almost bleeding beauty of Purcell’s “Lament” from 1689 opera “Dido and Aeneas” was any less gripping than Bernstein’s grievously gorgeous lament “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” four centuries later? Or was it only a matter of Purcell using a different set of musical crayons, say purple, red and lavender as compared to rose, indigo and gold?

When I listened with a Beginner’s Mind to the works below, it immediately became clear that lo and behold, the sounds I was hearing were, despite their ostensible “antiquity,” absolutely fresh, new, novel and beguiling, almost as if some out-of-the-box composer had opened a door to a new and ravishing sound-world of whose existence I had somehow long been unaware.

The bottom line, then at least in the world of art, is that there is no time, there is no evolution, no hierarchy, no early and late, no before and after; there is only essence, which is a fancy word for singing the song of who we are whenever we happen to sing (or play) it.

If sung truly from the heart and to the heart, it must connect, must resonate with our souls and must call forth the depth of what, century after century, millennium after millennium, human beings have come to reverence as great musical art.

Tear up your calendars and your history books; they are seemingly factual, but, in the end, sheer lies. All great music is beyond the grip of time.


And here is Agnes’ master concert from last year. Cox played both cornetto and theorbo in a couple of pieces. http://tiny.cc/g94mix and http://tiny.cc/sa5mix

The concert on July 13 is at the home of Wendy Redlinger at 2596 Tater Lane, Guilford, Vt., and the concert on July 22 is at the home of Phil and Marcia Steckler. 40 Eaton St, Brattleboro, Vt.

Admission to the house concerts in Brattleboro, Vt., is a suggested donation of $25. Seating is limited and reservations are recommended: call 257-1024 or write to dcox@sover.net. Admission to the concert in Chester is $15. Reservations are not required. For more information on the Chester concert, contact Bruce Parks at 875-2753 or bpinvt@comcast.net.

An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at josephmarcello@verizon.net.

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