The final concert in the early music series at St. Luke’s Cathedral Chapel in Portland was to have been a program of Baroque Italian tenor duets by Monteverdi and his contemporaries, but a last-minute scheduling conflict forced Timothy Burris, the lutenist who runs the series, to scramble for a replacement.
His solution was to look at a parallel universe: Italian composers of the early 17th century gave way to their French counterparts, and Timothy Neill Johnson, who was to have sung in the original program (he is the tenor in Music’s Quill, the series’ resident ensemble), was joined by Joëlle Morris, a very fine mezzo-soprano who teaches at Colby College, instead of another tenor.
In terms of subject matter, the original and replacement programs were similar, since 17th-century composers in both countries were preoccupied with the joys, pains and perils of love, and to a lesser extent, the joys, pains and perils of drinking. But the French and Italian musical accents are quite different. The Italians prized drama as an undercurrent of their vocal settings; the French valued suppleness.
As it turns out, early music fanciers can have it both ways, since the Italian program has been rescheduled as part of next season’s Portland Early Music Festival, in October.
Music Quill’s modus operandi is to split its programs between solo sets for each of the performers, and full ensemble pieces, so along with the promised duets, each singer offered solo songs (accompanied by Burris), and Burris played a handful of solo lute and theorbo works.
Most of Burris’ solo turns were theorbo pieces by Robert de Visée, a lutenist and guitarist at the courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV, whose music remains a popular part of the classical guitar repertory, and has been explored more fully with the re-emergence of the Baroque guitar, a thin-waisted model with strings tuned in octaves (a bit like a modern 12-string, but not quite).
As he often does, Burris sidestepped the obvious choices and offered a few rarities instead – transcriptions from Lully operas (“Logistille,” from “Roland,” and “Chaconne des Herlequins,” from “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”) and a miscellaneous chaconne, all played gracefully and with attention to the balance between the delicate top lines and the robust accompaniments played on the theorbo’s open bass strings.
Burris also provided the program’s curtain-raiser, a slow, lovely “Entrée” by the composer and publisher Robert Ballard, which concisely established the contours of the French harmonic style that would be explored more expansively in the vocal works.
Morris, the mezzo-soprano, was an interesting addition to the program. Born in France, she phrases these songs with the fluidity of someone who speaks the language. And because she is not an early music specialist – her repertory includes Mozart operas, contemporary works and jazz, including a tribute to Edith Piaf – she takes a modern approach to coloration, treating the songs as living works rather than museum pieces.
That meant bringing out hints of between-the-lines mischievousness amid the lovelorn imagery in the anonymous “Ma Belle, Si Ton Ame,” and offering animated accounts of a drinking song by Gabriel Bataille (“Qui Veut Chasser Une Migraine” – directions for avoiding hangovers) and Antoine de Boësset’s sweetly pastoral “Un Jour Amarille et Tirsis,” each rich in carefully measured shifts of timbre and dynamics.
Johnson is also attentive to the shape and underlying emotional intent of a musical line, not to mention the charm that suffuses the French 17th century harmonic and melodic style. He also has a flexible voice that proved useful in these pieces, which often fall low enough in the tenor range to sound almost baritonal, a quality that Johnson produced easily in Pierre Guédron’s “Belle Qui M’Avez Blessé.” His contoured performance of François Richard’s “Ah! Que de Tes Conseils la Puissance,” and his comic rendering of the anonymous “C’est un Amant, Ouvrez la Porte” (a jealous husband’s rant) were among the highlights of the program.
Burris noted, in his introductory comments, that 17th century French court airs for mezzo-soprano and tenor are not plentiful. But the ensemble offered six rich-textured, harmonically attractive duets by Michel Lambert, in which Johnson and Morris produced an appealing blend, with Burris’ strong support on the lute.
Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: