‘We like to do theatrical projects and we like to do Monteverdi; that’s our calling card,” says Gwendolyn Toth, founder of the 20-year old early music ensemble Artek. The group presents a concert of sacred music by Claudio Monteverdi entitled “Italian Masterpieces from St. Mark’s Cathedral,” on Friday, November 16, at All Saints’ Church, 16 All Saints Road in Princeton.
The program consists of selections from Monteverdi’s “Selva Morale,” published in 1641. Monteverdi wrote this compilation of sacred music after his 1613 appointment as maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s in Venice. Included are intimate solo pieces for one, two, or three singers, as well as works for five, six, and seven singers, all with instrumental accompaniment.
“Even though we’re playing sacred pieces on this program, it’s not dull church-music,” Toth says in a telephone interview from her home in New York City. “It’s passionate, lively, and vibrant. With Monteverdi, there’s no giant difference in style between secular and sacred.”
Performing at the November 16 concert are vocalists Jessica Tranzillo, soprano; Barbara Hollinshead, mezzo-soprano; Drew Minter, countertenor and baritone; Philip Anderson, tenor; Michael Brown, tenor; Peter Becker, bass-baritone, and Charles Weaver, bass.
Instrumentalists include Grant Herreid, lute; Daniel Swenberg and Charles Weaver, theorbo (an oversized lute); Christa Patton, baroque harp (which has more strings than the modern harp and lacks pedals; Lisa Terry, violone (a bass instrument that plays in the same range as the cello, but, because of its timbre, contributes a sound fuller and richer that that of either the cello or the viola da gamba); and Theresa Salomon, violin. Special guest Italian baroque violinist Enrico Gatti solos in sonatas by Monteverdi’s contemporaries Dario Castello and Aldebrando Subissati. Artek’s Theresa Salomon joins him in the Castello work.
This concert inaugurates a two-concert series for Artek. On Friday, April 4, Piffaro, a Philadelphia-based ensemble of Renaissance wind instruments, joins Artek to perform early baroque German music at All Saints Church.
European mid-17th century music has its mysteries even for those immersed in it. Commenting on the composers of the works guest violinist Gatti plays, Toth says, “We know very little about Dario Castello, including his dates. Just that he flourished about 1650.” About Aldebrando Subissati she says, “I’ve been involved with music of this period all my life, but, strangely enough, I had never heard of him before. Gatti chose the Subissati piece from a collection of sonatas published in 1675. I know Gatti’s playing. He has superb taste. I had confidence that whatever he chose would be fine.”
Toth was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1955 to a bricklayer and stay-at-home mom. She is the third of four siblings. “It was not a particularly musical family,” she says, “although there was some evidence of musical ability on my father’s side — a cousin who was a professional violinist.” Toth’s younger sister is a freelance trumpet player, who plays jazz and has performed in Broadway musicals. Toth is presently a faculty member at Montclair State College and at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts.
“I asked to take piano lessons and started when I was eight,” she says. “When I was 10 I had a friend who played flute. We decided to play together. It was my first experience with chamber music, and I loved it. We played a difficult baroque sonata. The [music] editor’s realization of the keyboard part was elaborate. Nobody told me that in baroque music I could have improvised and created a part that I could really play.”
Toth started organ near the end of high school. “It was a nice suburban school, probably a lot like Princeton,” she says. “The last month of senior year, you could choose a senior project and I chose learning organ.”
As a member of the class of 1977 at Vermont’s Middlebury College, Toth studied organ and conducting with Emory Fanning. In an online interview for the Lyrichord record label, she said Fanning is “a very intensely musical man with a very strong sense of text in organ music as well as in choral music. He communicated a sense of rhythmic vitality in the music, so that it’s alive and breathes at all times. It dances, and it is always expressive. That’s the absolute first ideal you aim for.”
Toth says her interest in harpsichord came in grad school. After her undergraduate work, she followed her own star, learning about early music in Bruges, Belgium, studying composition at New York’s City College, pursuing contemporary music in New York, and studying at Yale’s School of Music, where she eventually earned a doctorate in 1988. Her thesis topic was contemporary harpsichord music.
“The Yale School of Music is separate from the Yale music department,” she says, “and gives a performance degree. When you finish your course work, you go out in the world and improve yourself. After you’ve been away for awhile, you come back to New Haven, take your orals, and play a final concert.”
She says she went to Yale in 1981 and 1982 “to do more with organ. I did all the class work for a doctorate and had put my name on a list to study organ with Ton Koopman in Holland. He said, ‘I only teach harpsichord. It’s all the same.’ That’s true, for early baroque music. I studied with him in Amsterdam.”
After returning from Amsterdam Toth began giving concerts in 1986, inspired by her work with Koopman. “I thought that it would be too entirely boring to just do solo keyboard music,” she says. “From the very beginning, I had asked some friends to play concerts with me.” For its first two years, the group called itself “The Art of the Early Keyboard.” After performing four concertos on four different keyboards in 1987, they decided to abbreviate the name and call themselves Artek. Artek’s website, www.artekearlymusic.org, includes a monthly newsletter.
One of Artek’s identifying features is the use of a large continuo section, the group of instruments that supplies the bass line for a performance. The continuo contingent for the November 16 concert consists of six instruments: organ, three lutes (including theorbos), baroque harp, and violone.
“A lot of continuo instruments: that’s the way we like it,” Toth says. “Thirty years ago, when period instruments were being rediscovered, only cello and harpsichord were used for continuo. As we studied more, we learned that the use of continuo instruments was not fixed. The instruments varied geographically, depending on the country or the city. And lost instruments were rediscovered.
“We’re trying to play the right instruments for Monteverdi,” Toth continues. “Cello and harpsichord are not his continuo instruments. Monteverdi worked in Mantua and Venice. In south Italy it was quite different.
“The Monteverdi pieces have one bass line played by all of the continuo instruments. Usually there is no indication about the exact instrumentation. Only the bass line is written.” The bass line is often called a figured bass because the desired chords are indicated by figures, or numbers that identify particular configurations of chords. “We improvise the chordal accompaniment,” Toth says. “The higher parts are notated, but have leeway when it comes to ornamentation. They improvise the ornaments.”
In 1995 Artek recorded a memorable performance of Monteverdi’s first opera, “Orfeo,” written in 1607. The opera is known for its dramatic power and lively orchestration. It is one of the first large compositions in which the exact instrumentation of the premiere has been preserved, and it may be the first example of a composer assigning specific instruments to parts. Artek performed “Orfeo” in New York’s Symphony Space last spring.
Artek toured with the Mark Morris Dance Group from 1997 to 2002, appearing at McCarter Theater in the late 1990s to perform Monteverdi madrigals. “Mark understood the expressive possibilities in Monteverdi and the madrigals we performed,” Toth says. “He felt, like we do, that it was some of the most passionate music ever written. The dance reflected that.”
The ensemble combined their interests in theater and in Monteverdi by staging a musical “I’ll Never See the Stars Again,” which was performed in New York in 2002 and 2003, and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2005. Set in the 1940s, it is based on Monteverdi madrigals. Artek is currently making plans for a touring version of the show.
Other projects are also on the agenda. What Toth calls “a huge year-long celebration of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers” is slated for 2010 when the work celebrates its 400th birthday. In addition, Artek is looking into the development of a play about Carlo Gesualdo, the 16th century Neapolitan whose harmonic boldness is still striking today, and who is said to have arranged for the murders of the lovers of his two successive wives.
Toth is married to harpsichordist Dongsok Shin. She met the Boston-born artist when he turned up at a Mannes College of Music event and peppered her with questions about her harpsichord. At the time Toth lived in a walk-up and had to hire somebody to help carry the instrument from her station wagon up four flights of stairs. Shin lived on the third floor of a building whose small elevator wouldn’t accommodate his large French harpsichord. He proposed that they agree to help each other move their instruments. “She had the car, I had the muscles,” Shin told Royal S. Brown, the interviewer for Lyrichord, referenced earlier.
The couple lives in Manhattan with their three children. “We tour together and play as duo on two harpsichords, two organs, or as a four-hand duo on fortepiano. The kids are old enough for that.” Samantha, a visual artist, is a high-school senior and plays harp. Linnea, less than two years younger, and interested in science, is also in high school; she plays violin and sings. Son Adrian, 10, plays piano. “I just asked him the other day what he was interested in,” says Toth, “and he said, ‘history.’ I wasn’t surprised. You could say that his parents live in the past every day.”
Artek, Friday, November 16, 8 p.m. All Saints’ Church, 16 All Saints’ Road, Princeton. “Italian Masterpieces from St. Marks Cathedral” featuring music by Claudio Monteverdi. $20 and $30. www.artekearlymusic.org or 609-921-2420 or 212-967-9157.