Venezia Stravagantissima. Balli, canzone e madrigali, 1550 - 1630.
Skip Sempe's Capriccio Stravagante Renaissance Orchestra is the largest and most luxurious ensemble yet assembled for the performance of masterpieces from this Golden Age of musical creativity, with Renaissance violins, viols, recorders and sackbuts.
Capriccio Stravagante Renaissance Orchestra
Skip Sempe, direction
Doron David Sherwin, cornetto
Jay Bernfeld, viola da gamba primo
Ariane Maurette, Caroline Howald, Anne-Marie Lasla, Michele Zeoli & Jean-Christophe Marq, viola da gamba & basso di viola
Simon Heyerick & Yannis Roger, violino
Dominique Lortie & Wim Becu, trombone
Patricia Lavail, Michel Quagliotti, Marine Sablonniere &
Julien Martin, flauto
Mike Fentross & Radames Paz, chitarrone & guitarre
Francoise Johannel, arpa
Skip Sempe & Olivier Fortin, clavicembalo & virginal
Sebastien d'Herin, organo di legno & regal
Michele Claude & Pierre Rigopoulos, timpani
Guillemette Laurens, canto (16)
Enregistre en novembre 2001 a Paris a l'eglise Notre-Dame du Liban
========= from the cover ==========
Denis Grenier: You were born in California, but that was no more than an accident: in actual fact you grew up in New Orleans, a place that, to judge by your temperament and your music-making, sometimes gives me the impression of being a Mediterranean port; to be honest, there seems to be a lot of the Italian in you.
Skip Sempe: Well, I am just a member of a long tradition of musicians - Dufay, Josquin, Froberger, Bach - who have been inspired and affected by Italian temperament and tradition.
I suppose that as far as "time travel" is concerned, there is almost nothing more Italian than the "Grand Tour", so passionately charged with curiosity about the antique world. Remember Thomas Coryat, the eccentric Englishman who walked to Venice on foot? He wrote what can be considered the first travel guide to Europe, "Coryat's Crudities", published in 1611, and indeed he mentions his especially spectacular musical experience in the "Observations of Venice".
"The third feast was upon Saint Roches day being Saturday and the sixth day of August, where I heard the best musicke that ever I did in all my life both in the morning and the afternoone, so good that I would willingly goe an hundred miles a foote at any time to heare the like... This feast consisted principally of Musicke, which was both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so superexcellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like. But how others were affected with it I know not; for mine own part I can say this, that I was for the time even rapt up with Saint Paul into the third heaven... Sometimes sixeteene played together upon their instruments, ten Sagbuts, foure Cornets, and two Viloldegambaes of an extraordinary greatness; sometimes tenne, sixe Sagbuts and foure Cornets; sometimes two, a Cornet and a treble viol." Coryat then goes on to mention "two theorboes, to which they sung also, who yeelded admirable sweet musicke", as well as that "every time that every severall musicke (that is, all the musicians) played, the Organs, whereof there are seven faire paire in that room, standing all in a row together, plaied with them".
Denis Grenier: In the period that interests us here, the sixteenth century, Italy was the center of musical and artistic creation in Europe. Are you not yourself a Renaissance man, a creative performer? The score is your raw material, a sketch that you complete, that you transfigure...
Skip Sempe: The score is the work of the composer. The performance is the work of the performer. In the creative interpretation of works from this period, it is absolutely essential that performers reject the restricted conception regarding the role of the performing musician which has become the norm in our time. If the listener is not completely carried away by the performance, the "message" of the composition cannot possibly be perceived. The composer's message has come down to us on the page, and the performer's task is to interpret that message. The current idea of musical "creation" has become too synonymous with either the work of living composers, or, in the field of earlier repertoire, the act of reviving forgotten repertoire.
One must remember that the act of interpretative creation also exists, and that it is the most essential ingredient in the recipe for outstanding performances. So we don't neglect this aspect of performing. The extraordinary ornamentation (in the diminution tradition) in which the musicians engage here is part of the performer's task. In our time, musical directors may well ask the performers to avoid ornamentation, but in the seventeenth century, an instrumentalist or singer who could not ornament brilliantly would have been perceived as an amateur. In addition to this sort of invention, we have also transcribed vocal music for instrumental performance (as was done at the time), and there are quite a few important secrets to this kind of arranging. Even with music that appears relatively simple on the page, many musical decisions have to be made. These decisions are neither intellectual, historical nor musicological. They deal exclusively with interpretation and performance. The printed indication on many of these scores suggests performances "per ogni sorte di strumenti" - for all kinds of instruments. The different instrumental possibilities provoke different varieties of solutions and arrangements, so we have calculated that into the performances accordingly.
The past four decades have been particularly rich in the discovery of forgotten repertoire and have fostered a tremendous acceleration in momentum for both musical instrument making and a clearer understanding of the fundamental problems that affect the performance of earlier repertoire. Sadly, significantly less progress has been made in the realms of efficient interpretation and effective musical communication. This fact can be quite possibly attributed to the negligent necessity of engaging in certain evils, but having reached the limit at which new possibilities of effective musical continuation and artistic rediscovery require the reconsideration of current rules and norms, many of those rules and norms must be abandoned. Now that "together and in tune" are considered a matter of taste rather than a matter of fact, only one question remains: is the performance expressive or not?
Denis Grenier: Venice is neither Rome nor Florence: the Renaissance in Venice has its own character, and Venetian music has its own palette of sounds. How would you define this Venetian musical universe, and its specific qualities, both intrinsically and as reflected in this project?
Skip Sempe: Venice, as Coryat reminds us, enjoyed splendid and robust sonorities. We know about the cornetti and sackbuts of San Marco, we know about the Gabrielis, Monteverdi and all their collaborators and contemporaries. Venice was also a major publishing capital of Europe at the time, so the diffusion of repertoire from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century is part of Venice's cultural contribution to the history of music. Musical instruments invented in this period tended to come from Italy, and even Venice: cornetti, sackbuts, viols, lutes, harpsichords, organs, regals...
Let us imagine a young viol player from London, who visits Venice for the first time around 1600. Canzonas, dance music, madrigals and their instrumental transcriptions form the entertainment. He produces a pavan of his friend Holborne, just off the press, and asks the Venetians to play it in "the Venetian manner". Generally content with five viols and a lute, he is surprised to hear twenty - three instrumentalists perform "consort music". The Venetians, impressed by the composition, ask who wrote it, and the tourist replies "Antonio Incerto", to test his Italian.
Denis Grenier: The style of Capriccio Stravaganteis based on a quest for sound, for an original sonority. This multi-faceted approach is notable for its vigorously assertive musicality, its playful side, its experience of sensuality, its phrasing, its own special bouquet, its sumptuousness...
Skip Sempe: Many important and exciting developments occurred in instrument making during the sixteenth century. For example, bass instruments were invented. Previously, large instruments (like the bass viol and the bass sackbut) were unknown: the earlier instrumentarium was more or less divided into "soft" (indoor) and "loud" (church and outdoor) instruments. These two categories of instruments created a certain dynamic, but did not permit the sumptuousness that the invention of the bass instruments in sixteenth century allowed. The invention of bass instruments made a new sound, and therefore made way for an entirely new territory in musical composition and musical performance, from accompanied monody to the instrumental ensembles and orchestras throughout the seventeenth century.
Denis Grenier: What is the role of the instruments? The Capriccio Stravagante Renaissance Orchestra?
Skip Sempe: Almost all of the musical instruments that we now refer to as "Baroque" instruments are actually Renaissance inventions, which had been perfected by the middle of the sixteenth century. The question often proposed concerns whether the musical instrument or the musical composition came first. I am convinced that the invention of the musical instrument generally came first, meaning that the invention of the instrument inspired the manner of instrumental composition. The idea that the composer invented everything (including the instruments...) is a false notion which began in the nineteenth century. Landowska said, early in the game, that "the power of sonority is not a novelty". Without knowing it, Landowska virtually invented the entire early music movement with this one observation.
In other words, dispassionate sobriety deprives the musical performance of its essential qualities of intention, power, drama and nobility. This is all we can really say about the music, because interpretation is inseparable from performance.
Denis Grenier: When we get down to basics, doesn't this highly colorful music, which is both robust and agile, relate to the jazz you were immersed in when you were younger? Doesn't it share the same spirit of improvisation as that spontaneous style of music, which would be desecrated by excessive codification, definition of its outlines, organization of its flow, pre-planning of its gestures? Aren't we dealing here with music of the instant? With the dance?
Skip Sempe: In fact, despite my background, Renaissance music is what I listened to the most. The ideas of improvisation, spontaneity and "making it look easy" are the elements which I inherited from the jazz tradition. Dance music forms an important part of Renaissance and Baroque repertoire. What is innovative in an effective performance of dance music is the contrast between regularity and irregularity of rhythm and of gesture. The surprise and brilliance which are required in dance music are based on planned as well as improvised phrasings and gestures.
Performances of Renaissance (and Baroque, for that matter) dance music on "automatic pilot" only serve to convey a weak impression of the repertoire. The best instrumental virtuosi reject being forced into an inexpressive framework, because their instruments speak so much more effectively when they are allowed to treat them as musical instruments in allowing the advantage of varying degrees of resonance - including optimum resonance without damaging the quality of the sound. It is not a matter of dynamics - loud and soft - but of resonance. This idea of mastery of resonances, on a solo instrument, in chamber ensembles, or in orchestras, is part of the lost art of playing on "period instruments". Many so-called "Baroque Orchestras" these days could not care less about applying this essential technique, so, these orchestras are effectively modern groups playing on period instruments. I only mention this because Capriccio Stravagante has set out to do something which is radically opposed to this standardized way of thinking. The instruments themselves are not enough. It is important to mention that this mastery of resonances is also one of the many secrets to great singing, and this is what instrumentalists imitated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Denis Grenier: Caprice, extravagance, fantasy, these are the principles your ensemble's "trademark" claims as its own. Doesn't this "inspired lunacy" reach its apogee in the superlative of "Venezia Stravagantissima"?
Skip Sempe: The "historical performance practice" debate has popularized and legitimized an intellectually weak and philosophically dishonest argument designed to remove the ultimate allure that has been crafted into much Western music, including "art music". This allure is achieved via full interpretive understanding of the imitation of everyday speech. The process is generally referred to as the "imitation of the voice", but what is important to understand is the difference between the speaking voice and the singing voice. It just so happens that this allure is based on the unavoidable intrinsic value of the identification, personification, and projection of magical interplay of masculine and feminine qualities of sound and gesture which governs the dramatic delivery and subsequent recognition of sensory, hence sensual, musical messages.
Denis Grenier: Wouldn't you say Capriccio Stravagante and its "leader" are now ready for seventeenth-century opera? After all, you 've already given performances of the Intermedi from La Pellegrina that were eminently worthy of preservation on CD... and that you should certainly revive. How about Monteverdi?
Skip Sempe: Opera is also one of Venice's splendors. Though La Pellegrina was a Florentine (though published in Venice) affair of the Medici court, the instrumentation of this last great Renaissance "pageant" is that of the extra-colorful Renaissance Orchestra. Monteverdi also used the Renaissance Orchestra in Orfeo, as the sound of the Renaissance Orchestra was intended to evoke antique fable all on its own. Later, in Poppea and Ulisse, times had changed and Monteverdi changed with them - a few bowed strings, lutes and harpsichords.
We have rediscovered this extraordinary Renaissance Orchestra sound that has not yet been heard in our time. It was made possible not by the decision to perform on "period instruments". It was made possible by an assembly of extraordinary virtuosos who play with complete freedom of musical expression and invigorating instrumental abandon, encouraged by the fact that they are not afraid of the "chef. That is what I require. The letter is dead. Only the spirit survives, because all else is superficial. And, that is what the "Canto Mediterraneo" is all about.