Now, that's Italian
My Colonna: Bologna religious spectacle inspires unique Houston Chamber Choirconcert
Bologna is celebrated for many attributes. Nicknamed "la dotta, la grassa, la rossa" (the learned one, the fat one, the red one), the Italian city is home to the oldest university — the University of Bologna was founded in 1088. Its cuisine is responsible for propagating the meat-based Bolognese sauce and the color reference nods to the historic center's reddish roofs.
It's the birthplace of Maserati, the headquarters of Lamborghini. Bolognese are as obsessed with basketball as they are with culture, hosting an uncountable number of music festivals — traditional and modern — such that in 2006 it was the first urban center to be appointed a UNESCO City of Music.
"When we say or sing 'my spirit rejoices,' it's not just that the music becomes more lively. There's got to be something inherent in our emotional systems that brings that exaltation. Conversely, when we sing 'the wicked shall perish,' we have to get ferocious not just in the way we sing the notes, but the way we feel inside."
The makings of such a designation stems from the city's historical juxtaposition of things civic and sacred, particularly in the activities of Bologna's main church. The medieval Basilica of St. Petronius, Italy's third and the world's fifth largest church (able to accommodate 28,000 devotees), anchors the Piazza Maggiore, where the Bolognese congregated for religious festivals.
A specific religious festival, one that occurs every year on Oct. 6, is the inspiration behind Houston Chamber Choir's concert Saturday at St. Philip Presbyterian Church. The performance awakens a 17th-century holy musical spetacculo closeted for 317 years: Giovanni Paolo Colonna's Psalmi ad Vesperas (1694), written in the last year of the composer's life.
The music was published in individual parts — no complete score was produced — and such parts were scattered around libraries and archives. Greek editor Pyrros Bamichas found the manuscripts and parts and melded the score that will be used for this modern premiere performance leading up to a world premiere studio recording later this year.
Written in the composer's concerted style, the work calls for a chorus, five soloists — Melissa Givens, soprano; Kelli Shircliffe, soprano Ryland Angel, countertenor; Eduardo Tercero, tenor; and Matthew Treviño, bass — string orchestra, baroque harp, theorbo and organ.
"It would have been a grand civic and religious festival," Anne Schnoebelen, Mullen Professor Emerita of Musicology at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, explains. "In Bologna, the two entities worked together. The Bolognese had a strong sense of civic pride. The city was also part of the Papal States. If the Pope wanted to get anything done in Bologna, he had to work with the noble families.
"This would have been a celebration of mass (morning service) and vespers (evening service) proceeded by all sorts of processions in the main civic square, the Piazza Maggiore. It's a handsome place surrounded by Medieval and Renaissance buildings."
The apse of the basilica is such that sounds reverberate into its abyss roughly for about 10 seconds. Colonna's music took advantage of such an acoustic marvel.
The spirit of the text
The Houston Chamber Choir partnered with Schnoebelen, who lived in Bologna researching the basilica archives as part of her dissertation, to prepare the music of three 17th-century composers —Maurizio Cazzati, Giovanni Paolo Colonna and Giacomo Antonio Perti — for the concert.
Colonna's music was the most complex. He was influenced by contrapuntal tradition; his music has fugato passages that rise and fall and grow in intensity.
"Music of this period is drawn very closely to the spirit of the text," Robert Simpson, artistic director of the Houston Chamber Choir, says. "We tend to think that composers write emotions into the notes. In this case, the emotions come from the text which is then amplified by the music. There's a great deal of liberty in tempi, in spirit that comes from playing to what's being sung.
"When we say or sing 'my spirit rejoices,' it's not just that the music becomes more lively. There's got to be something inherent in our emotional systems that brings that exaltation. Conversely, when we sing 'the wicked shall perish,' we have to get ferocious not just in the way we sing the notes, but the way we feel inside. It's a wonderful example of becoming dramatic conveyers of the art rather than just repeaters of written notes."
This aesthetic varied greatly from the Renaissance, where music was more placid, much more homogenous in sound with only a small amount of instruments, perhaps an organ to support the singers.
"Sacred music was sung very simply at first," Schnoebelen explains. "As the complexities of music began to form themselves in the Renaissance, sacred music took on those complexities. In the 17th century, [liturgical music] became one of the major vehicles, along with the mass, for composers to use their skills."
And for that aesthetic, Colonna was widely known during his time.
"Leopold I in Vienna wrote and asked for copies of every one of his sacred pieces to be performed at his court," Schnoebelen explains. "At the end of his life, Colonna was asked to become the maestro di capella for the Sistine Chapel by the pope, but wasn't able to do that due to health reasons. He was famous."
The Houston Chamber Choir will present the modern premiere of Colonna's Psalmi ad Vesperas on Saturday, 7:30 p.m., at St. Philip Presbyterian Church. General admission tickets can be purchased online and are $30; $25 for seniors over 65.