August 15, 2012

Corona & Chiaroscuro

This glorious 18th century dome in the 12th century church of S. Michele Arcangelo is located in Bevagna, Italy, where I had the pleasure of singing with Umbrian Serenades this summer - the town, not the church, I should note. (We performed in a older church up the street that is now deconsecrated performance space.) The Romanesque S. Michele Arcangelo was made over in high Baroque style in the 18th century and subsequently restored to its original appearance in the 1950's, the domed chapel surviving, perhaps, because of its virtuosic craftsmanship. When I first saw it after walking through the unadorned nave, I thought: "This is the essence of chiaroscuro." Light illuminating darkness, the term applies to the art of painting as much as it does singing. In the latter, it has everything to do with the perception of tone.

Here is a view of the church looking from the altar to the entrance, the chapel in the picture above is off to the left in the foreground. As you can see, the restoration of the sanctuary has stripped it of its Baroque ornamentation, leaving simple marble, stone and stucco. 

The crypt underneath the altar is a large space resonant space, perfect for concerts. I stood in the middle of the room and sang a few bars of Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium, imagining monks doing something similar a thousand years ago at the birth of polyphony. It was, well....magical. 

Narrow windows in our concert space let in just enough light to give the impression that, in a darker age, the room was womb-like and full of mystery. Domes, arches, vertical architecture and high ceilings with strategically placed windows in all these these spaces impel one to look - no - think and feel upwards. It is the same with beautiful singing in an earlier age. Old world pedagogues often talked about the dome at the back of the mouth while making a circle with a hand above the head, telling students to sing into the corona and spin, spin, spin the tone. You don't hear this much in pedagogical circles anymore seeing that we've gotten anatomically oriented and mad about function, parts and trying to control everything. My own teacher would cut right through this and say: "Your mask starts here!" While pointing to her upper lip. Then: "It ends here!" While pointing to the crown of her head. Need I say that this is a matter of listening rather than doing? 

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