“The Furies”: A Concert Review in Three Acts

27

February
2010

Ensemble: I Furiosi
Lineup: Soprano, two violins, cello, and guitar/theorbo
Location: I.U. Campus
Atmosphere: Expectant
Mood: Reverential
Music: Baroque(ish)

Act I

Looks can be deceiving. At times, an unassuming group delivers a memorable performance in a dynamic way, and at others, a flashy ensemble with a hip look fails to deliver what it promises.

I Furiosi was successful in achieving the latter, not once, but twice.

Having heard them this past summer in Indianapolis, I knew what to expect, yet I hoped their Bloomington performance would be better in some way, more interesting, perhaps. On both occasions I was left wondering how they can claim to be “one of the world’s most innovative Baroque ensembles” when all they do is dress up differently than (most) other baroque groups and play a bunch of seemingly ad hoc party pieces in a pedestrian manner.

I have a problem with the disconnect between how they sell themselves and who they really are in performance. I won’t go into every single detail, but just the main issues.

Act II

Aside from their sound not coming close to matching their look, the ensemble’s semi-staged presentation came off as awkward and unpolished.

Entitled “Addicted to Love,” the program is essentially driven by series of vocal pieces—a peculiar assortment of songs from Dowland and Monteverdi, through Handel and Bizet(?), to a specially arranged traditional American folk melody. The drama is centered on the group’s soprano, Gabrielle McLaughlin, who portrays a love-lorn woman in search of, well, you know…love. As the concert progresses each member of the ensemble tries to please her in one way or another. She shuns them all until the very end.

This may sound good on paper, but in reality it came up short—there wasn’t a single convincing actor on stage. They looked more uncomfortable than anything else.

A little of the staging did come across, however, including a bit of recurring humor. But the laughter dissipated as the night wore on because the same joke was being told over and over again.

There was a particularly serious drawback to McLaughlin’s performance. Not a single piece she sang was delivered from memory. For a concert that is basically a voice recital with instrumental interludes, her reading from a score not only looks less-than-professional, but takes away from the potential communication she could have with the audience.

This was most apparent in her performance of Handel’s “Myself I shall adore,” a standard soprano aria and effective dramatic vehicle for those who can work a single mirror—real or mimed. Sadly, the multiple props McLaughlin used, mirror included, were more distracting than anything else. And her dependence on the music magnified the confusion.

(Here’s the ensemble, with a guest harpsichordist, performing the very same aria at a festival in Germany—same delivery (and ornaments), but slightly different array of props. I don’t think my assessment is off.)

As for the instrumentalists, the playing was polite, overall. The violins produced wonderful sounds together, but their interpretations were hardly exciting, let alone innovative. The cellist receded into the background as the concert began and stayed there. The guest lutenist was an asset, but could only do so much.

Act III

I Furiosi’s product is based on a fast-talking press release and a fancy group photo, while their music-making definitely falls short of the expectation they set us up for.

I think the ground they’re trying to cover has been done already, and in a more effective way.

Does anyone remember Bimbetta? They were an early music ensemble with a post-modern approach in the 1990s (made up of three sopranos and a continuo team). They also had a semi-staged show with a program not unlike I Furiosi’s. If you compare Bimbetta’s 1997 release “War of Love” with I Furiosi’s recent debut recording, “Crazy,” you’ll see what I mean. They are remarkably similar, which is not to say it’s a bad thing, necessarily, but when you proudly claim to be innovative, as I Furiosi does, and all you can do is serve up warmed-over baroque party pieces, one can only take issue.

When I think of innovation, I look towards the future and not the past.

Innovation is not a word I’d ever use to describe a period ensemble going for a pure approach to Early Music.

Admittedly, there are many characters and varieties (I Furiosi fitting in somewhere), but a fixation on historical detail is not the same as interpreting early repertoire in demonstrably modern fashion and coming up with a decidedly 21st-century product. And if you’re going to look to the future, there will be many kinds of modern genres that you will inevitably run into and take into consideration.

In the end, it’s really about the music and not the look.

Below are three examples of what I imagine innovation in Early Music to be about. They all blend period and modern instruments (or technology), create cross-over music or seamlessly integrate into a modern genre, and present something new or unexpected. All three videos speak for themselves.

“Trace de Renaissance” from French serpent player Michel Godard’s new Carpe Diem recording “Le concert des parfums”:

Pachelbel’s “Canon” with DJ Bretzel and Elbipolis Barockorchester Hamburg:

“Nowheresville” by Nico Muhly, performed by Teitur and the Holland Baroque Society:

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