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Vocal Art Ensemble – Mostly Madrigals

What exactly is a madrigal, and what makes it so? Where did it come from, and where did it go?


This May, the twenty-five singers of the Vocal Art Ensemble (VAE) aim to answer these questions and more with their spring concert program entitled Mostly Madrigals—An Age of Refined Musical Pleasures.

“The idea sparked when one of my singers asked me to define just what a madrigal was,” explains VAE director Tracia Barbieri. “I realized there were probably many music lovers who don’t really know the answer either, and that I could create a whole program to show them!”

So Barbieri set out to craft an educational as well as entertaining choral program, where VAE could trace the heritage of the genre by musically illustrating several of the madrigal’s compositional characteristics.

For example, showcasing ‘word-painting’ will be the two-part madrigal Thule: The Period of Cosmography, composed by Thomas Weelkes in 1600 when he was just twenty-four years old. “Weelkes was playing around with the imagery of an erupting volcano,” says Barbieri. “Through overlapping scales he paints the picture of billowing ‘sulphurious fire’, and with scattered entrances of the voices he imagines flying fishes leaping away from the lava as it flows into the ocean. It’s all so much fun to sing, I’m not at all surprised it was all the rage with both peasants and aristocracy back in Weelkes’ day!”

According to Wikipedia, a madrigal is defined as “a secular vocal music composition […] of the Renaissance and early Baroque eras. Traditionally polyphonic madrigals are unaccompanied, the number of voices [varying] from two to eight.” It also defines word painting as “the musical technique of writing music that reflects the literal meaning of a song.”

The madrigal selections in the Mostly Madrigals concert program will range from three to six parts; VAE will utilize as few as one or two singers on a part, to as many as six.

“To me the most challenging and interesting aspect of this music is how to embody both the lightness and delicacy of the lyrics and notation, and at the same time convey the powerful emotions underneath,” says VAE soprano Jeri Ohmart. “This music often carries us along like bubbles on a stream, but that stream runs deep and the currents underneath are strong! I love it!”

“It is fun to sing pop music from 500 years ago,” adds tenor Rob Woodman. “It is playful, inventive, and shatters convention and decorum just like pop music of today. It not only gives us full permission to be creative, but begs us to go beyond simply beautiful singing into a full bodied, lusty, grab-you-by-the-ears tug into an experience of the musical relationship.”

But why is the program entitled Mostly Madrigals?

Because, says Barbieri, the concerts also include examples of other types of compositions she views as related. “I want to give a taste of the madrigal’s influences both across the globe and through the generations,” she says, “so we’ll also perform sacred music from the same period that perhaps inspired or was inspired by this genre, as well as a little ethnic music that embraces some of the same compositional techniques.”

VAE will be joining forces with the Baroque & Beyond recorder ensemble, a group of Sacramento-based historic enthusiasts who play on authentic Baroque and Renaissance wooden instruments. Soprano Laura Sandage will act as narrator and educator, guiding listeners through the concepts they will hear.

The program will then conclude with several selections from two Madrigal song cycles by modern composer Morten Lauridsen. “After hearing our program, the audience can decide for themselves whether they consider them true madrigals or not,” jokes Barbieri.

Mostly Madrigals will premiere on Friday, May 1, 2015 at 7:30pm at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Sacramento (2620 Capitol Avenue). Additional performances will be Saturday May 2 at 7:30pm at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Davis (27074 Patwin Road) and Sunday May 3 at 4:00pm at the United Methodist Church of Davis (1620 Anderson Road).

The suggested donation, which will be gratefully accepted at the door, is $10-25.

For more information visit www.vae.trug.com or call 530-757-2396.

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