Creative programming is afoot this fall in Denver. Seicento Baroque Ensemble joins the movement this weekend with a fascinating and intellectually-stimulating concert, Celestial Music, centered around the Great Comet of 1680. Combining some of British great Henry Purcell's sophisticated choral music with a dash of art history, science, and insightful narration, this event is a unique look at the cultural and scientific phenomenon of a comet. Performing an entire concert of a single composer can be monotonous, but Purcell (1659-1695) is a most worthwhile subject, and in his short life he composed a wide variety of music. A sampling of his anthems, court music, and secular catches on a range of sacred and classical subjects was put into the framework of how the composer might have reacted to the otherworldly apparition of a comet.
A pre-concert lecture by scientist Dr. Eliot Young and arts educator Linda Otstott educated the audience about the historical fascination with comets, which continues to this day. Before the development of telescopic astronomy, comets were seen as harbingers of doom and change. The Great Comet of 1680 lit up the skies for several weeks and inspired Isaac Newton to further his theories and confirm the work of earlier astronomical innovators. Seicento Artistic Director Evanne Browne joined with ensemble member Rebecca Tice to create a program sewn together with narration suggesting how Purcell's music might have been a response to the awe and dread aroused by the appearance of the comet. With works composed from 1677 to 1695, and brief narration voiced by CPR Classical host Charley Sampson in his trademark sardonic tone, the audience got a fun and inventive evening of Baroque music without being beaten over the head with background information.
Soloists Amanda Balestrieri, Marjorie Bunday, John Grau, and Aaron Harp sang their parts with style. Browne does an admirable job of advocating for early Baroque music and creating a very fine vocal and instrumental ensemble. This re-imagined context for Purcell's many sacred, courtly, and even a few of his irreverent and bawdy catches, transformed the music into a lively, timely response to the scientific and cultural phenomenon of a comet - much like today's artistic responses to events, like the climate change opera Auksalaq, or the political drama The Gonzales Cantata. While there were several momentary lapses in musical clarity, the passion and sheer musical invention of Purcell's text setting and harmonies came vividly to life in this performance. The choir sounded most at home on selections from Funeral Music for Queen Mary (1695), which was performed at Purcell's own funeral only months after he completed it. Here, the richness of sound and confidence in declamation conveyed a sense of doomsday prayer that may have been an appropriate response to witnessing the giant ball of gas and rock plummeting through the heavens. The debaucheries sung about in the catches 'Tis Women Makes us Love, Five Reasons to Drink, and A Catch Upon Port Wine, contrasted pleasantly with the other long-form works on the program, and made it clear that a proper response to the apocalypse might indeed be a bottle of port and time with friends. In all, this was a clever program and a delightfully re-envisioned take on the usual period concert.
Celestial Music: Celebrating the Music of Henry Purcell and the Great Comet of 1680
Friday, October 25, 7:30 pm | pre-concert lecture at 6:45
Bethany Lutheran Church, Denver
Saturday, October 26, 7:30 pm | pre-concert lecture at 6:45
First United Methodist Church, Boulder
Sunday, October 27, 4:00 pm
St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Fort Collins