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Empyrean Ensemble to present music by Monteverdi plus a modern setting by Ortiz

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From page A11 | April 19, 2013 |

Check it out

What: Empyrean Ensemble presenting Monteverdi and Pablo Ortiz’s ‘Parodia’

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts

Ticket: $20 general, $8 students; www.mondaviarts.org, 530-754-2787

The Empyrean Ensemble will present two works featuring largely the same text — one composed in Italy during the early 1600s, the other composed in Argentina in modern times — at a concert in the Mondavi Center’s Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at 7 p.m. Sunday.

Presenting music that is nearly 400 years old is a bit of a departure for the Empyrean Ensemble, which ordinarily focuses on music composed in the last decade or two, or even new music that is being performed for the first time. But Claudio Monteverdi’s “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” is thought to have been first performed in 1624, and published in 1638, so you could think of it as having been very forward-looking for its times.

“Il combattimento” is sometimes described as an operatic scene, and sometimes described as a dramatic madrigal; it has three vocal parts, and runs around 25 minutes, more or less. The setting is the Middle Ages, the era of Crusaders. The story is narrated by a character known as Testo, who describes the deadly combat between the fierce Tandcredi and the valiant woman-in-armor Clorinda, who perishes.

The Empyrean Ensemble is not intending this performance as a historic recreation of the music using the same instruments that would have been heard in Monteverdi’s time. The ensemble will include a clarinet, which didn’t assume its modern form until the 1700s, and a marimba, which originated in the New World; both instruments would have been unfamiliar in Italy in the early 1600s. But there also will be a harpsichord and strings. Matilda Hofman will conduct.

Providing the vocals will be visiting soprano Suzana Ograjenšek, originally from Slovenia, who will sing all three parts (Testo, Tancredi and Clorinda). Ograjenšek’s background includes roles in productions of Monteverdi operas in England, France, Spain and elsewhere.

The Monteverdi will be semi-staged, with master of fine arts candidate Deirdre C. Morris of the theater and dance department directing, and another graduate student designing the lighting.

The second half of the program will feature “Parodia” by Pablo Ortiz, one of the faculty composers at UC Davis. Ortiz says he is using the term “parody” in an older sense that was used by musicians in centuries past. (In the 1600s, a composer using borrowed material in a musical setting of the Mass would call his work a “parody Mass,” and the term did not have humorous or satirical implications.)

“I have used the same text — the libretto drawn from Torquato Tasso’s poetry — that Monteverdi used,” Ortiz explained.

He will have a choir of nine singing the part of Testo, with tenor Jonathan Smucker, a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory, singing Tancredi, and Ograjenšek singing Clorinda. “Parodia” will feature the same group of instruments that were heard on the Monteverdi during the first half.

Ortiz composed “Parodia” in the 1990s, and it was presented several times in 1997, alongside the Monteverdi, at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. (Ortiz is from Argentina.) Most Davis listeners undoubtedly will be hearing “Parodia” for the first time.

Ortiz revisited the piece last year, making several revisions.

“But I found, in essence, that the music was something I could have written today. The piece is still fresh,” he said. “I substituted harpsichord for the harp (used in the 1997 version), and I changed some of the percussion instruments, and did some minor changes to the choir part. But the music is still very close to my aesthetic now.

“And it will also be minimally staged — though the ‘minimal’ staging may not actually be all that minimal; there will be lighting and movement.”

Ortiz added that he’s been feeling good about the state of contemporary music in Davis since last month’s Egghead Walk, which featured original music by UCD faculty composers that was performed by members of the visiting St. Louis Symphony at each of the late Robert Arneson’s Egghead figures. The event drew several hundred people.

“This is a very musical community,” Ortiz said. “And we have seven composers — local composers — teaching at the university and doing things here. I don’t know many towns the size of Davis that have this kind of musical life … the caliber and variety of the (musical) offerings we have is quite significant.”

Tickets are $20 general, $8 for students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787.

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