By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Rewarding Recital Of Renaissance Music

The never-ending dissatisfaction I was expressing in the 1980s and '90s (as THE HINDU's Western music correspondent in New Delhi) about the all-too-brief performances of visiting musicians from the West was mainly in the context of chamber music, which was the most frequently organized genre of Western classical music performed by foreigners in the metropolis.   

Visiting folk music-and-dance ensembles from Europe and the Soviet Union were far more liberal with their time and contributions.  The occasional concerts of foreign symphony orchestras also gave us great satisfaction, our only grievance being that they were so extremely rare.   

And performances of music relating to the Church or secular European society of the medieval times were usually substantial and not disappointing even if they were quite short, because of their sharp focus on the academic and historic aspects of those arts.  They created excellent opportunities for me now and then to brush up my knowledge in the libraries and in brief discussions with the organizers and/or the guest-musicians, and share some useful insights with a cosmopolitan set of readers in the Capital :-  


Lalit Kala Akademi  --  One of India's three National Academies in the Capital city New Delhi, concerned with fine arts other than performing arts (painting, sculpture, crafts).   "Akademi" is how the Indianized expression is spelt.  The other two are Sangeet Naatak Akademi (music, dance and drama) and Saahitya Akademi  (literature).  

Maurya Sheraton  --  One of several foreign-Indian collaborative ventures in India's hotel industry. 

New Delhi
21  November 1986

Renaissance music reconstructed

There is a tremendous surge of cultural activity in the Capital this November, with the visual and performing arts (Indian and foreign -- folk, classical and modern) severely competing with one another to capture the attention of the citizens.

One of the outstanding attractions in this rich season has been the Leanardo da Vinci festival organized by the Cultural Center of the Italian Embassy in New Delhi and the Associazione Italia-India in Rome.

The main feature of the festival (which concludes today) is a marvelous exhibition of Leanardo's works at the Lalit Kala Akademi.  On display, among other things, are realistic reproductions of the master's most famous paintings (like Mona Lisa, Adoration of the Magi, and so on), and sketches and models of various machines and musical instruments invented or designed by him.

Cultural resurgence

As is well known, the expression Renaissance (French for 're-birth') denotes a broad historical trend in Western culture, characterized by a revival of European literature and fine arts in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The migration of Greek scholars to Italy following the sack of Constantinople by the Turks ushered in an era of great interest in Greek and Roman literature, and led to the emergence of a fresh set of artistic and philosophical values reminiscent of those of classical European civilizations.  The invention of printing in the middle of the 15th century greatly facilitated the process of spreading the new learning.

The luminaries of the world of Western art in this dynamic period were Leanardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo and Raphael.

Influenced by the new perceptions governing literature and the visual arts, European music too underwent a progressive transformation in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.  The printing of musical scores became a profitable activity, with Venice setting a lead to all of Europe, and there followed a widespread interest in secular and religious music. 

During the Renaissance, solo singing with instrumental accompaniment continued to be predominant ;  but there was an ever-increasing recognition of the value of instrumental virtuosity and autonomy.  Among the important new elements were the enlargement of the tonal range, the growth of rhythmic sophistication, and the development of harmony in music.  There was altogether greater freedom of musical expression, and a gradual detachment from the severely restraining musical forms characteristic of the medieval age.

Voice, instruments, dance 

It was a splendid idea on the part of the organizers of the Leanardo da Vinci festival in New Delhi to have arranged two recitals by a set of Italian musicians who specialize in the music of the Renaissance period.  The first of these concerts was held at the Cultural Center of the Italian Embassy, and the second one (which I attended) took place on the lawns of the Maurya Sheraton Hotel.

A significant aspect in this context is that the instruments played by the Ensemble del Riccio are authentic copies of those actually in use in the relevant period.  They include the lute, curved or straight reed-capped horns, and Renaissance types of the harpsichord and the trombone.

Also featured were different versions of a flute with a whistle-type mouth-piece, known as 'recorder'  (or flauto dolce, meaning 'sweet flute' in Italian).  The array is completed by various kinds of drums and bells.

The works of several 15th and 16th century composers were rendered in the recital, the vocal element in many of them being superbly provided by Marco Beasley, who also handled the drums.   The musicians who played the other instruments with obvious expertise were Luca Benvini, Marco Chiappero, Lorenzo Giordo and Giorgio Ferraris. 

An important feature of this musical event was that most of the numbers were fortified by the visual effects created by two dancers wearing attractive costumes of the Renaissance period. 

In the first part of the program, Andrea Francalanci, the male dancer, appeared in a brown costume with a flowing red head-cover and leggings of white and red, while Bruna Gondoni, the female dancer, wore a beautiful scarlet-and-pearl dress.  In the second part, both of them wore black costumes heavily embroidered with gilted patterns.

Not only in their attire but also in their personal appearance, the dancers looked completely convincing as Renaissance models, and their performance was a delightful element of the evening's instructive entertainment.

Distractions galore

Obviously a performance of this kind, which seeks to explore and explain the artistic criteria prevailing in a historically important phase in the evolution and development of Western music and culture, must be approached with undivided attention and a spirit of reverence.
One must offer a bouquet to the management of the Maurya Sheraton for hosting the event on their well-kept lawns, but it is necessary to point out several serious flaws in the arrangements. 

They had decided, apparently with good intentions, to create an Italian environment by providing for hot, steaming pizza and other sizzling Italian foods to be sold and served on the lawns where the event was taking place.  (The service commenced during the intermission, and was stopped with some difficulty for the second part of the recital).  This was hardly conducive to the proper appreciation of the performance.

The seats were surrounded on all sides by blinding floodlights, which brightly illuminated the audience but completely eclipsed the beautifully got-up stage and made it look quite insignificant.  Some bright lights located on the stage were also beamed towards the audience, producing a powerful glare which adversely affected the viewing of the dances.

Moreover, there was something wrong with the amplifying equipment, and the commencement of the concert was delayed by half an hour while technicians and musicians tried desperately to adjust the microphones and loudspeakers.

But it is a pleasure to record that in spite of all these severe distractions, the earnest musicians and dancers did have a forceful impact on the audience -- which speaks extremely well of their accomplishment and integrity as performing artists and musical scholars. 

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