It's a testament to Camerata Nova's programming savvy that they're able to somehow integrate acts of savage butchery with sublime a cappella choral works.
Its latest offering also wins this year's prize for wittiest title, Where's Gesualdo? The program featured music mostly composed by Don Carlo Gesualdo, a.k.a. the Mad Butcher of Venosa, plus two world premières. The 16th-century Italian prince is equally notorious for his forward-looking music -- lauded by contemporary masters Berg, Schoenberg and Stravinsky -- as for the vengeful slaughter of his hapless wife and lover.
Sunday's concert also notably welcomed the 18-year-old ensemble's first guest conductor: Christopher Jackson. Regarded a pioneer of early music in North America, the Montreal-based artist worked magic on the 16 choristers, pulling new energy and sound from the ensemble with a palpable rapport. It is hoped that this maestro -- who leads neither with a stick nor a carrot, but carefully articulates every beat with a pencil in lieu of baton -- will return.
Sospirava il mio core and Ahi, disperata vita provided the first taste of Gesualdo's expressive music, with long sustained notes often breaking into tumbling motives and syncopated rhythms. However, there were a few balance problems in Ave Regina coelorum, where the sopranos predominated.
The choir also braved its way through Monteverdi's Anima dolorosa and Anima del cor mio, performed with focused clarity, and Lasso's Timor et tremor, which seemed to gain momentum with every measure.
The 90-minute program also included Arvo P§rt's Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis; this choir should sing works by the Estonian composer more often. Stravinsky's Pater Noster, performed in Russian, evoked the solemnity of a "Tenebrae" religious service.
The première of artistic director Andrew Balfour's Cartoline da Venosa (Postcards from Venosa) unfolds as imagined notes from Gesualdo to his murdered wife, Maria. Its first movement, Salve, sees the sopranos -- the voice of Maria -- growing increasingly insistent on the word "salve" (save me). In the second, Lasciate ogni speranza, Balfour's clever morphing of the Latin text from the prince's cries to his doomed wife Maria into a prayer to the Virgin Mary became profoundly moving. In one fell compositional swoop, Balfour manages to capture the complexity of this tortured artist, writing with a sense of compassion while earning a standing ovation.
On the other hand, Michael McKay's Miserere mei Deus is a darkly twisted walk on the wild side that begins with the men's halting recitation of Miserere. The seven-minute programmatic piece devolves into cries, shrieks and moans before all hell breaks loose. Before our very eyes, the choir's men begin to stagger about as a band of thugs, including Gesualdo, re-enacting the crime, punctuated by spoken, hissed text (this writer is still trying to get over seeing tenors slaying sopranos onstage). Kudos to Camerata Nova for boldly tackling this unusual work -- also musically brutal to sing -- and Jackson's conviction in helping them pull it off.
Two final sacred works -- Sicut ovis ad occisionem and Tristis est anima mea -- rounded out the program while underscoring Gesualdo's whipsaw range. Hearing this ethereal music on the heels of McKay's psychodrama became overly jarring, making a listener shake her head while feeling a bit mad.