Music in Eternity – A Remarkably Beautiful Program

Michael Nyman meets Henry Purcell in "Fretwork with Iestyn Davies", presented by Cal Performances

Zellerbach Hall front plaza

This week Sunday started with a very special momentum in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall where the Fretwork Ensemble enlightened its audience with a remarkably beautiful program of Michael Nyman and Henry Purcell.

The Fretwork ensemble
(credit: Courtesy of Fretwork) 

Why, however, would one combine Henry Purcell’s compositions from the 17th century with contemporary classic by Michael Nyman? It is the fact that Nyman’s music cannot be understood without Purcell, one of his vital sources of inspiration from his early days at the King’s College in London. 

Nyman often added vocals and viols to Purcell’s music, and, such as in “Music After a While”, worked with one of Purcell’s bass lines. The results are re-interpreted, modern versions of Baroque. It is striking how Nyman has brought together the previously unconnected pieces  of text and music from the same era while following the principle of minimalism. In contrast to  traditional baroque which allowed for musical ornaments in addition to the doctrine of affects, Nyman focuses on pure emotion. 

The competing, yet harmonizing instrumental melodies, mostly dominated by a powerful basso continuo, are to a listener like swimming through waves of time until time becomes endless – or as Michael Nyman titled ”No time in Eternity”, a composition in which he took various elements from poet Robert Harrick’s Hesperides (1648). After a marvelous start with this piece, the afternoon went on with Purcell’s Fantazias. Especially the second one, Fantasy No. 11 in G major featured the typical concertante style, meaning that the different instruments in alternation, seem to compete and interfere with each other and then dissolve into harmony. Interestingly, this piece kept a certain dissonance almost until the end, when the bass  line, slowly marching, became more present and finally, the end accord with all instruments in harmonic sync, suggested an image of direction and re-orientation bringing order into the chaos. 

Both, the subsequent “Music for a While” and “The Evening Hymn” by Henry Purcell refer to death and salvation. While especially the Hymn leaves the latter uncertain, Nyman’s piece “If” sounded like an answer of hope, expressing wishes, which, even though unanswered, bring a different, more optimistic perspective.

Most chosen poems in Nyman’s music inherit a political or moral message. Between phrases like “I’d wish to stop all harm” (Roger Pulvers, Nyman: “If”) and “Why adults go to war” (Roger Pulvers, Nyman: “Why”), one can observe a pacifists’s stance. Therefore, it is possible to consider “timeless peace”as an overarching theme of the compilation. 

Nyman’s music is touching, sublime, yet positive as the dark, deep, intertwined sections are  followed by lighter, spirited ones. 

Countertenor Iestyn Davies
(credit: Chris Sorensen) 

Countertenor Iestyn Davis has mastered the vocals in this performance with impressive timbres and voice dynamics which translated notes into dramatic passages, thoughtful moments and melancholic-happy feelings. Fretwork, the celebrated viol consort, consisting of five top musicians from all over the world,  took its audience from their chairs into the music. And it almost seemed like an awakening when Iestyn Davis spoke his final words of thanks towards the end. 

Overall, the ongoing dialogue between past and present makes this program fascinating and inspiring. I would recommend it to anyone who has a real interest in the depths of classical music.

More information about Zellerbach Hall and Cal Performances

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