Le Triomphe de l’Amour, the four-person baroque chamber music group, prides itself on presenting tightly knit programs that amplify their cultural context. Two related programs in 2015 exemplify what Triomphe is up to. “Water Music I: Along the Grand Canal” presents music by 18th-century Venetian composers on Saturday, February 28. “Water Music II: A Trip up the Thames” offers a musical tour of 18th-century London on Saturday, April 25. Both programs take place in the Unitarian Church of Princeton.
Using authentic instruments, Triomphe consists of Janet Palumbo, harpsichord; Donna Fournier, viola da gamba; Laura Heimes, soprano; and John Burkhalter, recorders. Violinist Daniela Pierson, a frequent collaborator, joins the group for the February program. Palumbo and Fournier are among the founding members of the ensemble, which is now in its 24th season.
Le Triomphe de l’Amour takes its name from the title of a French secular cantata. Interviewed by telephone from her home in Princeton, founding harpsichordist Palumbo says, “When we started the group we were four people especially interested in exploring the French baroque. Donna and I were among the original members. Laurie [Heimes] has been with us since our third season. John Burkhalter has become a regular member. We work with several violinists because they have limited availability. We’re especially happy to have Daniela [Pierson] for this concert because Italian music is one of her specialties.”
Composers with works on the February program are Antonio Vivaldi, Tomaso Albinoni, and Baldassare Galuppi. All three were born in Venice.
At 7:30 p.m., preceding the February 28 program, John Burkhalter, expert on early wind instruments and their historical settings, gives an illustrated talk on musical life in 18th-century Venice. He is likely, Palumbo says, “to evoke the beautiful music rooms in the palaces that line the Grand Canal and all the music that would be performed in those rooms for you and your friends.”
“Venice was a republic, founded on commerce,” Palumbo says. “It was at the forefront of international trade in the middle ages, but gave way to the Netherlands in the 17th century.”
By the 18th century, Venice, having lost its commercial leadership, still remained one of the richest communities in Europe. Its culture continued to thrive. Larger than Rome, but smaller than Amsterdam, the 160,000 Venetians supported seven opera houses in 1750. “They were public opera houses,” Palumbo says. “Anybody could buy a ticket. In Venice you could hear music any night of the week, in churches or in concert halls.”
Unique to musical Venice were four orphanages. At these establishments music was the center of the curriculum, and standards were renowned. Vivaldi, the pre-eminent Venetian composer of his time, was in charge of music at the Pieta. The building still bears an inscription threatening that lightning will strike anyone attempting to pass off his legitimate daughter as illegitimate in order to gain her admission to the institution.
Describing the February 28 concert, Palumbo offers earthy program notes.
Accounting for Tomaso Albinoni’s violin sonata in G minor, where Daniela Pierson solos, Palumbo says, “You just can’t put together a program of 18th-century music from Venice without including a violin sonata by one of its virtuoso violinists. The Italian manner of playing the violin revolutionized the instrument and the music written for it. Albinoni is one of the violinist/composers who contributed to this flowering of string writing, expanding the technique of playing the violin while composing music that showed everything the instrument could do.”
Antonio Vivaldi’s cantata “All’ombra di sospetto” (in the shadow of suspicion), in which Laura Heimes solos, is a secular cantata, Palumbo says. “Secular cantatas usually are about love — love and the pain it brings. The typical text considers whether love is constant or not, and how to tell the difference. It’s a meditation, from the lover’s point of view, about whether the beloved is true and faithful.”
Vivaldi’s concerto for flute and violin in F major features respectively Burkhalter and Pierson as soloists. “The piece lends itself to chamber music,” says Palumbo. “It has more limited scoring than usual, and we leave out the viola part. It’s scored for a very small orchestra, with one player to a part, so it easily adapts to omitting the viola part. We like viola players, but we don’t have one for this concert.
About the demanding aria from Baldassare Galuppi’s opera “La Vittoria d’Imeneo” in which soprano Heimes solos, Palumbo says, “We couldn’t resist it. The aria was sung by one of the best sopranos of the time, and it is a killer piece — with a range from low D to high D, and lots of high notes. It’s not performed much anymore. There’s lots of agilita — incredible runs, trills, and rapid tempos, expressing anger. We’re doing this because Laurie can sing it, and not too many other people can.” The opera was written for the wedding of the duke of Savoy and a Spanish princess in 1750 and then performed publicly.
Galuppi, who was associated with the Incurabili, one of Venice’s orphanages, is the composer also of the one-movement E-minor sonata to be performed by Palumbo. “It’s nice and never played,” she says. “The piece is very idiomatic for the keyboard. It lies right under the fingers and takes advantage of all the things a harpsichord can do.”
Palumbo plays what she calls “a French double harpsichord” for the concert. Built by Willard Martin in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, it has two manuals (keyboards) and is a copy of an 18th-century instrument. “I usually use this instrument for concerts,” she says. “For the Galuppi piece on February 28, two manuals are necessary because both hands play in the same register.”
Palumbo owns four harpsichords. “One is digital,” she says. “The other three are what I call real harpsichords.” Roland, the electronic keyboard manufacturer, produced the digital harpsichord. “At the push of a button, you could select one of half a dozen historic tunings,” Palumbo says. “Roland produced digital harpsichords in the 1970s and 1980s, but no longer makes them.”
She adds that she also uses harpsichords modeled on those found in museums, including a 16th-century one that has personal significance. “My husband and I made it from a kit before we got married. We had to get married because of the instrument. Neither one of us was going to give it up,” she says.
Palumbo is married to Hugh Lavery, a retired chemical engineer who has played harpsichord for fun, and has two “very musical” sons. Sam, 24, works with computers as a user-interface designer and plays with jazz bands on weekends. Max, 20, is a student at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, where Palumbo also studied. His instruments are violin, mandolin, and kithara, an ancient Greek instrument; he is a classics major, with an emphasis on ancient Greek.
Palumbo was born in 1957 in Pittsburgh, one of five children. Her mother was a high school English teacher; her father owned an Italian grocery store. Her mother, she says, was a good pianist. Her father, a fan of opera, had a sister who was a semi-professional violinist. Palumbo, the only child to become a professional musician, and her four siblings all had music lessons. “There was a lot of music in the house when I was a kid,” she says.
Starting piano at age five, Palumbo moved on, after grade school, to lessons at Pittsburgh’s Carlow College, now Carlow University, the school her mother attended.
As Palumbo was starting at Lawrence University, she attended an all-Scarlatti concert by American harpsichordist Fernado Valenti and was captivated. “On my first day at Lawrence I went to the (university’s) harpsichordist to switch my major,” she says. Following the advice of her harpsichord mentor, Palumbo began to study organ. “She insisted that the best way to adapt to harpsichord technique was through organ. One of the important things of playing organ is that the release of a note matters as much as the attack. Both organ and harpsichord keep the sound going until the note is released,” she says.
“Piano technique is flat-out really different,” Palumbo says. “Harpsichord does not make gradations of loud and soft. You use your attack and release of notes as a way to trick the ear of the listener. On the piano, if you press a key harder you make the sound louder. That’s not true on the harpsichord. With the harpsichord you have to fool the ear.”
Palumbo’s musical horizons extend beyond performing baroque music. She studied musicology at Princeton. “I like folk music and classical music of all sorts,” she says. “While I was a student I did a lot of medieval and renaissance music, music earlier than baroque. When I stopped being a student, I specialized in baroque music.”
A chief delight of baroque music for Palumbo is improvisation. Rather than writing out the harpsichord’s notes, baroque music often furnishes only a figured bass, a coded list of harmonies. Skilled harpsichordists use their ingenuity, turning the harmonic hints into melodies. “It’s a lot of fun to improvise,” Palumbo says. “It’s always creative. And there is the joy of playing with other musicians.”
Water Music I: Along the Grand Canal: Baroque Music from Venice, Le Triomphe de l’Amour, Unitarian Church of Princeton, 50 Cherry Hill Road. Saturday, February 28, 8 p.m. Pre-concert talk by John Burkhalter at 7:30 p.m. $20 general admission; $5 students.
Water Music II: A Trip up the Thames, Unitarian Church of Princeton, Saturday, April 25, 8 p.m. 609-252-0522 or www.triomphebaroque.org.