Celebrating comets, new and old

Seicento Baroque Ensemble looks to the stars for inspiration

Seicento Baroque Ensemble
Photo by Rich Saxon, StuffEyeSee

“It’s not the end of the world.”

That will be the musical message when Boulder’s Seicento Baroque Ensemble celebrates the Great Comet of 1680 by performing the music of Henry Purcell, Friday through Sunday in Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins (www.seicentobaroque.org).

The 36-voice choir of Seicento (“17th-century” in Italian) will be joined for the performance by vocal soloists and a period-instrument ensemble led by Baroque violinist Mimi Mitchell. Colorado Public Radio’s Charley Samson will narrate the performance, which will be under the direction of Seicento’s artistic director, Evanne Browne.

The concert precedes and was inspired by the expected appearance of comet ISON in November (www.space. com/19973-comet-ison.html), which has a similar orbit to the Great Comet of 1680 — one of the brightest ever seen. (Happily, that comet did not mark the end of the world, nor is ISON expected to do so. Astronomers are not yet certain if ISON will match the Great Comet in brilliance.)

Because the peak of Purcell’s career came around 1680, there is a logical connection between comet and composer. Browne is using that link to tell a story about the fears and hopes often aroused by comets.

It was Browne’s neighbor Eliot Young, a planetary scientist with Boulder’s Southwest Research Institute, who first gave her the idea for the concert. When he mentioned comet ISON and she learned of its connection to the Great Comet of 1680, “immediately my mind went to the music of Henry Purcell,” she says. “I had thought about doing a program of all Purcell anyway, because I think Purcell is underperformed.”

Purcell is well known in Great Britain, where he is revered as one of the greatest English composers. In this country, his music is sometimes heard in church, but much less frequently in concert venues.

“Just looking at the music of Purcell, I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to tell a story of the people who might have seen this comet, and wondered, is the world coming to an end?” Browne explains. “Or is something wonderful about to happen? People had to have been in awe of this magnificent sighting.”

At Browne’s suggestion, Becca Tice wrote a fictional narration that links the texts of Purcell’s music to historical writings, relating people’s reaction to comets over the centuries. Samson will read that narration as part of the performance.

“I think the program is just great fun,” Browne says. “We have quotes, we did a bit of research. Charley’s a wonderful supporter of all kinds of music, and was willing to go along with this fictitious presentation.”

Just about the first piece that Browne decided to include was Purcell’s “Celestial Music,” written in 1689 as a “Welcome Song for Lewis Maidwell’s School.”

“After Eliot Young mentioned the comet, just casually, I went, ‘OK! “Celestial Music!”’” Browne says. “It’s a great title, and it’s hardly ever performed. It’s grounded in Greek and Roman mythology, and the text extols the virtues of the celestial inhabitants that inspire music worthy of these gods.

“Another piece I want to highlight is ‘Funeral Music for Queen Mary,’ and we’re doing the three choral sections of that. That may be a title that doesn’t ring a bell, but it is familiar. Some of that music appeared in [A] Clockwork Orange in 1971, and they did a part of this for the funeral of Princess Diana. Purcell had written it for the queen’s funeral, and 10 months later they performed it at his own funeral.”

Other works on the program will include “We Must Assemble a Sacrifice,” theater music Purcell wrote in 1689, and several church pieces known as verse anthems, in which solo verses alternate with choral sections.

There will also be pieces that are definitely not fit for church performance, songs called “catches” that were written to be sung in social settings.

“Purcell wrote a lot of catches that were appropriate for the bar,” Browne says. “I looked through many pages of catches to find the ones that we could do in a family-friendly concert.

“What’s fun is that of course these pieces we’re performing were not written in response to the comet, but we can make the texts fit in such a way that it will be a delightful program. And since this concert is all in English, [the texts are] very accessible.

“Purcell, like all composers of the Baroque, understood word painting. His word painting is exquisite. Being a group that specializes in performance practice, and knowing that the Baroque period was very much about the text, I would say Seicento does a nice job of delivering that text.

“If you come, you’ll understand all of it.”

Seicento Baroque Ensemble plays “Celestial Music: Celebrating the Music of Henry Purcell” on the following dates:

  • Friday, Oct. 25, 7:30 p.m., Bethany Lutheran Church, 4500 E. Hampden Ave., Cherry Hills Village, 303-758-2820;
  • Saturday, Oct. 26, 7:30 p.m., First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce St., Boulder, 303-442-3770;
  • Sunday, Oct. 27, 4 p.m., St. Luke´s Episcopal Church, 2000 Stover St., Fort Collins, 970-493-7512.

Visit www.seicentobaroque.org/concerts.html for tickets and more information.

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