SF Chronicle | 10/14/2018 | An enchanting program of pop music from Baroque-era Venice

Jolie Greenleaf (left) and Molly Quinn of Tenet Vocal Artists.Photo: Tenet Vocal Artists

Jolie Greenleaf (left) and Molly Quinn of Tenet Vocal Artists.Photo: Tenet Vocal Artists

The line between classical and popular music has never been very fixed or firm, but in some settings it’s so porous as to be almost meaningless. Italy in the 17th century provides just one example, as an enchanting program of vocal and instrumental music on Friday, Oct. 12, made perfectly clear.

Appearing in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church under the auspices of San Francisco Performances, a skillful band of early music singers and instrumentalists presented a sleek 90 minutes of music by Monteverdi and some of his lesser-known colleagues. The execution was delightful, both buoyant and expressive.

Just as fascinating, though, was the issue of genre. If you had to put any of this music on the radio today, the classical music stations would be its proper home – if only because of the violins, cello, harpsichord and theorbo favored by members of the instrumental ensemble Quicksilver, or the fine-tuned singing of sopranos Jolie Greenleaf and Molly Quinn of Tenet Vocal Artists.

But listen beyond the surface trappings to the regular chord structures, short-breathed melodies and evergreen subject matter – love both won and lost, sexual desire, hard partying – and there was no mistaking many of these songs for anything but the fodder for centuries-old Top 40 radio. Some things really do remain constant.

Greenleaf and Quinn, with their sprightly demeanors and ripe, pure vocal qualities, could certainly be the frontwomen for any bar band you like. They dived right in with two duos from Monteverdi’s Seventh Book of Madrigals, their voices intertwining like honeysuckle vines as they traded melodic phrases or conjoined in sumptuous counterpoint.

Lighter entertainment resurfaced again at the end of the program, with selections from Monteverdi’s “Scherzi Musicali” – including the famous “Zefiro torna,” whose stylized evocation of the pastoral life boasts some of the composer’s most vivacious melodic writing. As an encore, the sopranos offered “Pur ti miro,” the exquisite final duet from Monteverdi’s “Coronation of Poppea.”

The instrumental ensemble Quicksilver provided expressive accompaniment to the vocalists.Photo: Geoffrey Silver

The instrumental ensemble Quicksilver provided expressive accompaniment to the vocalists.Photo: Geoffrey Silver

In between, the performers dipped into more serious fare as well, including two numbers from the collection “Madrigals of Love and War,” in which Monteverdi expanded his expressive palette to include a host of aching dissonances and rhythmic distensions. Quinn’s account of “Sì dolce è il tormento” (“So sweet is the torment”) was full of ardent directness.

Monteverdi’s stature was, not surprisingly, only underscored by the comparative pallor of the music of most of his contemporaries, particularly a couple of somewhat generic-sounding vocal works by Luigi Rossi, and some instrumental sonatas that made appealing if rather faceless interludes between the vocal numbers.

The exception was a certain Martino Pesenti, a little-known Venetian composer and harpsichordist whose magnificent “Ardo ma non ardisco” (“I burn but I do not dare”) was full of exciting textural dislocations and suave turns of phrase. In the parlance of pop radio, this was a very deep cut – and a classic.

Beth Beauchamp

Having worked as a professional musician, a music-educator, and the Executive Director of a number of non-profit arts organizations, Beth has over 10 years of experience in catering to the unique needs of artists. Beth believes that the talent, education, and skill-sets of her clients have inherent worth. As a passionate artist advocate, she aims to help her artists improve the quality of their own lives by encouraging them to honor the value of their own work, and by creating materials which allow them to champion their art with confidence. Equally interested in building community, Beth aims to create a roster of artists who are excited to support and collaborate together.