Newberry Consort enters a new era with rich program highlighting singer Europa di Rossi

Sat Oct 29, 2022 at 1:39 pm

By Katherine Buzard

Under new artistic director Liza Malamut, the Newberry Consort opened its season with a program spotlighting the Jewish Renaissance singer, Europa di Rossi. Photo: Elliot Mandel

In its first concert with Liza Malamut at the helm, the Newberry Consort showed that it remains in good hands.

Taking over for Ellen Hargis and David Douglass, who have led the Newberry Consort since 2009, Malamut is a trombonist, researcher, and educator whose research specialty is in Jewish music in early modern Italy. Aptly, this first program in her first season as artistic director centers on the life of Jewish court singer Madama Europa di Rossi.

Professional Jewish women musicians were rare in Renaissance Italy. Coming from a thriving community of Mantuan Jewish court musicians, Europa and her brother, composer Salamone Rossi, were a mainstay of the Gonzaga court for many years. This program sought to trace her life as a court musician through an “aural narration” with vocal works she might have sung and instrumental works she would have heard.

The conjectural program, presented Friday night at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston, was divided into sections, first introducing Europa, then the virtuosic concerto delle donne (consort of female musicians) with whom she would have sung, and the opulent theatrical spectacles in which she likely performed. In 1629, the Italian Plague struck Mantua, decimating the population and likely claiming the lives of both Europa and her brother. After a lament and funereal pavane, the concert finished with a celebration of Europa’s life.

The Newberry Consort performed at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston Friday night. Photo: L. Carrane

The instrumentalists and singers of the Newberry Consort were in fine form. The packed program of nearly thirty selections was well paced and texturally varied, alternating between different combinations of instrumentalists and singers, from intimate solo songs with spare continuo to lush polyphony for all sixteen musicians. 

The full complement of instrumentalists welcomed us to the Gonzaga court with Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi’s “Nasce la fiamma mia,” which featured antiphonal echoes between the four strings on one side and the three trombones and cornetto on the other. 

Soprano Erica Schuller, recently heard in the title role of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea with Haymarket Opera, then took the stage as the embodiment of Madama Europa, singing Monteverdi’s “Dolcissimo uscignolo,” which fittingly describes the sweet song of the nightingale. Schuller’s light and airy voice suited the subject of the madrigal, and she navigated the punishingly high tessitura expertly. However, she had to hold back some of her vocal color to achieve the floaty sound, which did not always carry past the mellow trombones.

Soprano Hannah De Priest and mezzo-soprano Kameryn Lueng joined Schuller in a beautiful unaccompanied trio, “I bei ligustri e rose” by Salamone Rossi. De Priest and Schuller’s voices weaved in and out of each other in repeated soaring figures, while Lueng provided solid grounding underneath. Allison Selby Cook, pulling double duty as both violist and soprano, later joined in a quartet by Paolo Virchi, blending seamlessly with the other singers.

From the first notes she sang, De Priest immediately distinguished herself with her versatility of vocal color, dramatic engagement, and textual clarity, even in ensemble pieces. Her consistent resonance, even when singing without vibrato, ensured she could always be heard no matter the tessitura or instrumentation. 

De Priest particularly wowed in a short snippet from Monteverdi’s famous “Lamento d’Arianna,” heightening the drama by tactfully deploying a seamless chest voice mix and stylish ornaments. The downside of such a tightly packed program is that the audience was cheated out of hearing the entire lament, which was a shame given De Priest’s committed performance. 

Schuller had a number of other solo opportunities in the program, giving heartfelt renditions of two Rossi songs, “Cor mio, deh non languire” and “Tirsi mio.” Schuller’s elegant phrasing made these selections a highlight, and the lower tessitura allowed Schuller’s gentle vocal color and textual clarity to come out to better effect than in the opening Monteverdi madrigal.

Tenor Matthew Dean and bass Daniel Fridley joined in the larger choral numbers. Dean also had one solo, Francesco Rasi’s “Un guardo, ohimè.” Singing from memory, Dean easily alternated between powerful and delicate singing, demonstrating impressive vocal agility and stylish phrasing. Though Fridley and Lueng did not have their own solo pieces, they quietly kept the ship steady with rock-solid ensemble singing, which proved especially vital in Rossi’s “Rimanti in pace,” an intricate a capella quintet.

Between the vocal selections were a number of instrumental works. The most interesting of these was Rossi’s “Sonata in diologo detta la Viena,” in which violinists Julie Andrijeski and Adriane Post duked it out in dueling solos. Andrijeski’s playing was particularly meaty and exciting. The quasi-improvisatory nature of the violin parts meant that the continuo players had to be flexible and attentive to the soloists’ pushes and pulls, which they did masterfully. 

Often the unsung heroes, the continuo section offered sensitive playing throughout the evening. Theorbist and guitarist Brandon Acker, harpsichordist Jason J. Moy, and harpist Claire Happel Ashe provided supportive accompaniment and firm rhythmic pulse throughout. Bass violinist Jeremy David Ward was also a joy to watch, and the treat of having three trombones (Malamut, Garrett Lahr, and Paul Von Hoff) and a cornetto (Kiri Tollaksen) lent the whole program a festive atmosphere.

This program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Hyde Park, and 3 p.m. Sunday at Ganz Hall at Roosevelt University.

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