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Christmas Gifts from ACO

New York
Corpus Christi Church
12/14/2023 -  
Antonio Gianettini: Four Psalms – Magnificat
Antonio Bencini: Gesù nato

Linda Tsatsanis (Salomino), Kate Maroney (Osea), Alex Guerrero (Labano), Amaranta Viera (Soprano), Guadalupe Peraza (Alto), Tommy Wazelle (Tenor), Dominic Inferra, Peter Becker (Basses)
American Classical Orchestra, Thomas Crawford (Organ, Founder, Artistic Director), Jeremy Rhizor (Music Director, Concertmaster)
Tony Lopresti (Movement Director)

L. Tsatsanis/T. Crawford

God bless us, every one, even Antonio Bencini.
Tiny Tim, from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (Revised)

For hundreds of years, unwashed fisherfolk and swineherds have dribbled over trivia like Messiah and Christmas Oratorio. We eclectic elite, though, are traditionally brought to liturgical tears, with music from the legendary “Two Antonios”: Bencini and Gianettini.

Just jokin’. (Hey, it’s the Merry season.)

The reality is that neither composer is even mentioned in the older Groves Dictionary. The other reality is that the American Classical Orchestra have dig up some of the music in a Crypt of the Most Obscure Baroque Composers, and yesterday evening presented this most unexpected Christmas choral concert.

That “crypt” is a fabrication, but is close to the truth. Bencini’s Gesù nato was never performed in America, and had a single performance (probably) in 1742 Bologna. It was found (Rescued? Saved? Resurrected?) in the subterranean Vatican Library Archives, and brought to light for today’s performance.

Antonio Bencini himself was on the cusp of the Classical age, probably born around 1700, dying in 1748, a few years before Mozart. He was hardly unknown in his own lifetime, as choirmaster of several important Roman churches. Today (for reasons below) he is anonymous.

Antonio Gianettini, a generation before, was better known, worked for both churches and Italian nobles, and was relatively prolific.

Both composers were displayed vividly in Corpus Christi Church, visually unimpressive but auditorially faultless, voices and orchestra clear without a scintilla of echoes.

And musically the period-instrument strings of the American Classical Orchestra were balanced with the small chorus in the Gianettini, and with horns, oboes, giant theorbo and strings in the Bencini drama.

The two composers, though, varied greatly.

Antonio Gianettini’s psalms and Magnficat were, indeed magnificent. He deserves more and more presentations. If only for imagination, he could be favorably compared with Heinrich Schütz and (even without brass) the Gabrielli family. This music was post-Baroque counterpoint. Not that it didn’t have its changes, but mainly it was sung in chorale fashion, with very varied colorful strings.

More important, Gianettini changed the ensembles throughout the work. We had solos, duets, angry outbursts, woeful phrasing, and each of the five “Gloria Patri etc,” were different. Vivid, imaginative, colorful, applicable for any church or cathedral.

The longest work–both in duration and fatigue–was the dug‑up Christmas oratorio Gesù nato.

On the one hand, the ACO has deserved countless plaudits for rescuing obscure 19th and 18th Century music. Always good to shed light on the inspiration on others. On the other hand, some music is concealed over the centuries because it’s lousy music.

Like last night’s Christmas oratorio by Antonio Bencini. I had called it a drama previously, since the oratorio was semi‑staged. The shepherds wore woolen coverings, the opening was a dumbshow (remember Hamlet’s dumbshow?) of sleeping shepherds, and the three principals describing a supernatural birth in neighboring Bethlehem were highly dramatic in their gestures, at one point Osea shedding her outer garments.

Add to that a libretto which could have come from a 13th Century Mystery Play. These were not holy Magi praying to the Christ Child. They were simple shepherds who–like the rest of us this season–can’t figger out an appropriate gift. In fact, Laban doesn’t want to see the Holy Babe because nobody will take care of his sheep. (Frankly, with an ominous horn imitating sheep bleating, I’d get another profession.) And like Cassandra prophesying oncoming doom, Osea suddenly says that the Babe will suffer pain, imprisonment, hanging between two thieves.

Until she admires Joseph and Mary and the baby, and she offers, as a gift, her heart.

The problem doesn’t lie with the anonymous story but with the music. At its best, it might resemble one of Handel’s youthful Italian cantatas. Or a Purcell pastorale. But musically, we had not a measure of inspiration. Each arias was lengthy, each was a de capo A‑B‑A structure. Few had emotions relating to the words.

Imagine what even the youthful Handel would make of the words “Blood shed in rivers... the earth trembles and the sea roars.” Bencini has a mundane aria with the excellent soprano Linda Tsatsanis offering some high notes. More dramatic were the explications and questions from mezzo‑soprano Kate Maroney (whose own high notes reached high soprano range). Their single duet was quite pretty. And that lazy shepherd Alex Guerrero gave stentorian tenor when necessary.

Alas, those necessities weren’t present. The chorus of shepherds had a pair of very pretty closings, yet one could have had more of their work.

Other than this, one sees why Handel was Handel (orchestral effects, radiant melodies, emotional duets and trios) and why Bencini had to be re-discovered from dusty tomes.

Again, one must applaud the ACO’s splendid vocal/orchestral resources, which radiated in Gianettini’s music. May the uninspired Bencini be returned to the Vatican Archive. Tis the season of joy and the rebirth of the earth. His resurrection can wait for another few centuries.

Harry Rolnick



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