Hark! Purcell Cometh

Lucy Gellman Photo... and that’s how people burn to death in hotel rooms, Annie Rosen finished on one great, swooping breath.

Light fell over her loose hair and reddened cheeks.

Behind her, Daniel Schlosberg leaned back. His round glasses had slid a little down his nose mid-story, when he started putting his whole body into each word and deep piano note. They smiled triumphantly. Above their heads, one of George Stubbs’s stateliest lions sank his teeth into the haunches of a wild horse.

But this wasn’t another evening lecture at the Yale Center For British Art, or a celebratory last look at a suite of fiery Turners before they go away for the Center’s year long renovation. Instead, it had a lot to do with the music Turner and his contemporaries might have listened to.

Cantata ProfanaThursday night, local gem Cantata Profana packed in close to 90 minutes of early modern and modern music with a particularly British flair, performing in the YCBA’s open paintings hall. Their set encapsulated themes that audiences don’t often get to see––or hear––among the glistening Gainsboroughs and Reynoldses: the traditional, the folksy, and the profane, all rolled into conversation with each other.

“I think British music has this kind of adventurous streak through it, which is not always what we think of first. I really wanted to bring that out, and the ways that these pieces talked to each other ... all of these composers are very interested in their own past and their own countries, so it’s nice to see them interacting with each other in a concert like this,” said artistic director Jacob Ashworth.

A side note about Ashworth that might make the group easier to understand: He is one part bashful and three parts brilliant, and meticulously curates each set the ensemble performs. The combination renders him––and the group––musically irresistible. All masterful musicians in their own right, members shrug ego to emphasize performance, and they are as captivated and moved by the music on the last run through as on the first rehearsal. You want to be friends with all of them by the end of the evening.

That goes for some of the new voices that appeared and reappeared throughout the night, too. As Ashworth explained, Cantata Profana “has our core group,” but is also always “in flux” depending on the needs of a piece of music. Several holiday treats were in store for Thursday’s audience: soprano Ariadne Greif, who can easily conjure up both Shakespeare’s truths and Henry Purcell’s filthy thoughts, and bass Peter Walker, whose rich, round notes sailed over Arash Noori’s guitar and roused Purcell from his grave.

Which, paired with Cantata Profana’s ingenuity, made for a very lively show. In addition to pieces like Vaughan Williams’ Along the Field for voice and violin, which showcased Ashworth’s and Greif’s abilities to play off each other, Harrison Birtwistle’s Songs by Myself brought members new and old together for a piece that displayed the group’s mastery of the material—and the fun they have playing together.

Take Williams’ Life Story, set to music by British composer Thomas Adès in 1993 for the Composers Ensemble. Opera at its best encompasses the witty and heartbreaking, the pithy and tender, the technical and laissez faire dynamics of life as we know it, and Rosen understands them all. Lyrics like “you tell them your story, or as much of your story / as time or a fair degree of prudence allows, and they say, / Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,” became winding, humor-inflected accounts of a one-night stand in a hotel room; “the two of you / lying together in completely relaxed positions / like a pair of rag dolls a bored child dropped on a bed,” foreshadowing an unthinkable end with its aggressive, punchy timing and bright, clear-cut shrill notes. And the punchline? Delivered with both comical intent and the precision of a scientist. With accompaniment on the piano by Schlosberg, for whom playing is an intensely physical performance, Life Story jumped to, well, life, as imaginative and visually sating as it was aurally. 

The evening ended with excerpts from Purcell’s naughty and totally delightful Catches for Three Voices. As Rosen, Greif, and Walker performed three Catches in rounds, the audience broke into laughter, surprised and charmed by the such technically perfect sound made rough with lewd lyrics. The short of it: the words so kiss my ass have never been so enchanting. 

After a final bow, the group dispersed. Some members sprinted for the 8:22 Metro-North, the beginning of a long journey home. A few fans stood at the back of the hall, biding their time with Stubbs’s animal specimens. Frosted gingerbread men waited in the lobby below. With no one looking on for another few minutes, they tapped their heels and danced.   

For more on Cantata Profana, visit their calendar.

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