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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 21, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 42
Early Music Guild International Series: 'The da Vinci Codex'
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Early Music Guild International Series: 'The da Vinci Codex'

by Adam Ross - Special to the SGN

The Toronto Consort
Town Hall
October 15


We are all familiar with Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci and perhaps the most celebrated painting of all time, the Mona Lisa. Most people, however, are not aware that Leonardo, in addition to his artistic prowess, technological ingenuity, and pioneering study of anatomy, was himself a celebrated singer and musician. Using written records of Leonardo's beautiful singing as a point of inspiration, the Toronto Consort presented a delightful suite of Italian and French court pieces, frottole, chants, and popular tunes to catalog the life of the man and what he might have heard - and himself sung - over the course of his long life.

The concert began with Toronto Consort Artistic Director David Fallis acting out a piece of Leonardo's own writing about how to paint a picture of a man speaking before an audience, himself mimicking the instructions of how to paint the speaker as he stood and declaimed. It was a clever (if slightly too-clever-for-its-own-good) way to begin the concert and to frame the music performed within the context of Leonardo's own time. Fallis continued to intersperse the musical sections with more readings, mostly of contemporaries writing about Leonardo. This neatly solved the problem of the audience feeling obliged to applaud every short piece performed. As a result, applause was heard only at the completion of each suite, at intermission, and at the conclusion of the concert, and the mood and flow created by the music was not interrupted by clapping at every turn.

Interestingly, the spoken selections touched upon an issue that Dan Brown addresses in his celebrated thriller that the title of this program riffs upon: was Leonardo Gay? Biographical notes state that in his youth, Leonardo loved to draw beautiful young men, and it appears that he had a close relationship with Francesco Melzi, the son of a Milanese aristocrat who became apprenticed to Leonardo. Melzi's name was mentioned frequently in the readings during the concert, and it gives pause to note that it was to him that Leonardo bequeathed his worldly possessions.

The Toronto Consort features five singers (who sometimes doubled as instrumentalists) with three other players (each playing an assortment of lute, guitar, hurdy-gurdy, recorder, and harpsichord), and presented an attractive hodgepodge of early Renaissance pieces, all reflecting different time periods or themes in Leonardo's life.

The longest section - pieces echoing our viewing of the Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile - were framed by the large print of the painting displayed behind the ensemble. The star of the ensemble was undoubtedly recorder player Alison Melville, who played with easy virtuosity and attractive aplomb in several pieces. Her rendition of a suite of variations in the 'Saltarello alla Venetiana' by Joan Ambrosio Dalza was one standout of the evening. Mention must also be made of Ben Grossman's hurdy-gurdy solos - how often is it that one gets to hear virtuoso hurdy-gurdy playing?

The voices accompanying these instrumentalists in solo pieces were competent, but their vocal quality was often a little underwhelming, displaying a typical scholar/singer 'early music voice' one often hears from North American ensembles playing this music. Only mezzo Laura Pudwell brought considerable verve to her solo singing with her rich tone and with emotion - either grave or comic as needed. Happily, though, the singers provided a lovely blend and a lively sense of ensemble when performing together in the multi-voiced pieces. Highlights were the rich, unusual harmonies of 'Lirum bililirum,' a Carnival piece sung in Bergamo dialect by Renaissance comic servant Arlecchino, as well as the moving final piece, 'Son restato sempre mai,' sung first as a solo by Pudwell, then gradually adding one-by-one the other four singers, who provided a moving elegy to Leonardo and his genius.

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Early Music Guild International Series: 'The da Vinci Codex'
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