Last night I had the pleasure of enjoying the mellow and rich sound of the cornetto and sackbutt ensemble, the Dark Horse Consort, in the company of Rembrandt. In Gallery 634 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art I sat in a chair while Rembrandt hung from the wall, a small but certain smile slowly spreading across his lips while the group played lively and lovely liturgical and secular music by Jacob Obrecht, Tielman Susato, Nicolas Gombert, de Lassus and Giaches de Wert.
It was the second set in the second room of “The Grand Tour,” a concert program repeated tonight 8pm that brings the audience on tours of some of the key rooms in the newly reinstalled galleries of European paintings, of selected music of the Renaissance and Baroque, and of an imaginative hint at the tradition of the Grand Tour in the cultural education of the pre-Modern European and American elite. It’s also another step in Limor Tomer’s rethinking of how the museum can present performances, and while it may be less obviously radical than some of the things coming up later this year it was a demonstration of how to make a simple, direct and rich and profound connection between a collection of physical objects and a live and ephemeral performance, something that museums around the world constantly seek but rarely succeed in efffecting.
With four rooms and four ensembles, the audience is divided into four rotating groups: mine, the red one, had the good fortunate of moving through the experience in chronological order. The experience began in Gallery 607, paintings from SIxteenth Century Venice, then to 634, music and paintings from Baroque Italy in Gallery 601, concluding with Eighteenth-Century genre paintings and portraits in Gallery 615, accompanied by (or accompanying), Jory Vinokour’s terrific playing of keyboard pieces from Louis and Francois Couperin, and Rameau.
My favorite painting in the museum, Lorenzo Lotto’s picture of Cupid peeing on Venus, is now in 607, a charming complement to the earthy and intense madrigals from Luca Marenzio, de Wert and Monteverdi, sung by Tenet. The music is a constant reminder of the era’s flowering of thought, the multiplicity of ideas and appreciation for simultaneity in thinking and action, as well as the burgeoning escape from the burden of dogma into humanism. Tenet’s fine performance was enhanced by the brilliant conclusion, with Marenzio’s Scendi dal paradiso following Monteverdi’s Oimè il ben viso, the glow of the latter juxatposed against the darkness of the former.
The Flemish music in 634 was a reminder that for most of musical history there was no division between classical and popular compositional ideas and aesthetics, as well as instruments. Composers wrote music for the church, and music for dancing, and they developed popular tunes into serious pieces, like Susato’s pavane on “Mille Regretz.” In 601,Quicksilver (Robert Mealy and Julie Andrijeski playing Seventeenth Century violins, Avi Stein and Charles Weaver on harpsichord and theorbo), played some sonatas from Dario Castello, Giovanni Battista Fontana and Johann Kaspar Kerll. Mealy and Adrijeski were great, with big, beautiful sound and excellent improvisations, while Stein, while playing better than for The Return of Ulysses came off as a solid but mundane accompanist. The violinists captured the sense of refinement and style that was growing in the proto-bourgeoisie of the period.
Vinikour furthered this. In his gallery, he seemed to be surrounded by admiring ladies of the court of King Louis, ready to praise his touch and lyricism. His manners and intellect were impeccable, appropriate to the social values of the day. He’s certain to be invited to entertain at court again.
The latter two sets were also reminders that music moved to the abstract and absolute, to the idea that a piece could be about nothing more than how one note or chord follows another, far earlier than any other art in the Western world. The subjects of the Italian sonatas were harmony, melody and improvisation, while the paintings surrounding the musicians were reimaginings of scenes from Classical antiquity. The style of the French era favored character pieces and genres, like the great pictures of Chardin, but also the abstractions from dance that we know as the forms prelude, allemande and passacaille. It wasn’t until the past century that visual art discovered abstraction, while music has been making the unreal and impossible real and possible, and fleeting, as a matter of course for 500 years. I don’t imagine this was the programs conscious intention, but The Grand Tour does more to demonstate my thesis that music explains civilization than any performance I’ve seen.
The Grand Tour concludes September 18 at 8:00pm, with an opening fanfare at about 7:50. TIckets are $100.