Classical Music

The Italian Cultural & Community Center Goes for Baroque

Mario Aschauer with his harpsichord
Mario Aschauer with his harpsichord Photo by Nathan Lindstrom
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Altus vocalist Michael Skarke
Photo by Jonathan McInnis
It might seem odd to envision that if James Taylor were around 400 years ago he’d be sitting under a forest tree in his finest breeches singing and playing “Fire and Rain” on a lute. Or Joni Mitchell clad in a mantua in some royal court sweetly warbling “Both Sides Now” accompanied by just a viol.

But that’s exactly what they’d be doing with their music during the Baroque period, according to Dr. Mario Aschauer, an Associate Professor of Music and Director of the Center for Early Music Research and Performance at Sam Houston State University,

“What was being done then is very close to what we think of today as the singer-songwriter style,” he offers via Zoom. “You have one vocal line and chords with one instrument that shape the poetry. It was very revolutionary and modern. They were performing basically an album of poetry.”

Keeping with the theme, Michael Skarke—an altus vocalist who has toured the world performing in operas and choirs— adds on the same Zoom call “In performances, it could be done one way one night and another the next. It could be very improvisatory, expressed in 10 different ways. And it all made sense, so long as the text came first and the storytelling came across.”

Aschauer’s harpsichord and Starke’s voice will be the sole instruments heard during Baroque Beginnings: Le Nuove Musiche. The concert takes place on September 12 at the Italian Cultural & Community Center, made possible with a grant from Humanities Texas. It’s also the kickoff program of the 2023/24 season for Aschauer’s Harmonia Stellarum Houston ensemble.

Guilio Caccini (1551-1618)
Record cover detail
The concert will feature highlights from composer Giulio Caccini’s 1602 collection Le Nuove Musiche and Claudio Monteverdi’s 1641 piece Pianto della Madonna. Aschauer will also perform harpsichord music from his new album Keyboard Music from Codex Vienna, Minorite Convent, 714.

And while there are no outdoor festivals with wenches, flagons ale and jousting to commemorate the time period, the Baroque era in art, culture, and society did immediately follow the Renaissance, lasting roughly from 1600-1750. Despite his concert’s title, Aschauer is not a fan of the term.

“I always find that ‘Baroque’ is a rather unfortunate term,” he says. “Musically, it spans 150 years that stretches from Caccini and Monteverdi to Bach and Handel. It’s very different. I think the beginning Baroque period is more exciting than what came later. These are revolutionary moments in music history.”

“Revolutionary” in that while in the Renaissance poetry (most often love poetry) was often performed to music, pieces were written for ensembles of five or so singers. Beginning in the Baroque period and inspired by the Ancient Greeks and the image of Homer reciting poetry with his lyre, Florentine cognoscenti from Italy moved things into a more one voice/one instrument direction.

That meant that a lyric or line could be attributed to and felt emotionally by single person. And it led directly to nothing less than the invention of opera.
Taking on a dramatic, pleading voice (because, of course the Italians were and are dramatic), Aschauer recites some typical verse.

“It says ‘Oh, my dear, I am so in love with you. But if you don’t’ believe me, then please take this arrow and open my chest and you will see what’s written on my heart!’” he intones.

Le Nuove Musiche is actually a collection of monodies and songs, and literally translates into "The New Music." The full piece includes 12 madrigals and 10 arias and even includes some of Caccini’s self-commentary about his musical grudges against more conservative elements. Though he himself wanted singers to perform his work in a very precise way without much embellishment or flourish.
So, where does Caccini stand on the canon of Baroque-era composers?

“I would say he’s among the top,” Aschauer says. “Just because we don’t know him well today doesn’t mean that the wasn’t influential in his time, which he was extremely.”

Aschauer says he was also, along with Jacopo Peri, composer of the earliest known opera, Euridice (because Peri’s even earlier work, Dafne, has been lost to history). Monteverdi’s L'orfeo (1607) was the first milestone opera, and with a score for over 40 instruments is the earliest work that is still regularly performed.

As for Monteverdi’s Pianto della Madonna, while one version appeared in operas in a more secular sense, this performance will retain its original sacred intent.

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Sheet music book for "Le Nuove Musiche"
Book cover
“It’s the story of Mary watching Jesus be crucified, and the text is very vivid and really relishes in the pain and discomfort of watching your son pass,” Skarke offers. “And now that I’m a father of an almost two-year-old, I can’t imagine that pain. I’m trying to sing the text in the way to really dive into the emotion of the piece.”

The duo has something of a Musical Mutual Admiration Society going, though Aschauer says Skarke is subject to a bit more nakedness of emotion and performance since it’s just his own voice out there.
As for Skarke, the music is the message.

“What I care about most is that I’m a storyteller and getting across to my audience what the words mean. Without that, it can become ‘Oh, that’s pretty,’” he says. “Vocal music depends on so much more. I would love for people to know and understand what I’m singing, even if they don’t know Italian at all. One singer and one harpsichord can be just a profound and deep as a symphony of 100.”

Baroque Beginnings is the first in a series of four 2023 musical concerts being held at the Italian Cultural Community Center’s housed in the Museum District's historic Milford House. ICCC Executive Director also notes it is the 100th anniversary of the home, which is also on the National Register of Historic Places and is available for private rental.
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The Milford House, which houses the Italian Cultural & Community Center, is on the National Register of Historic Places
Photo by Filippo Nenna
Summing up, Aschauer says he hopes that those who attend the concert will get something from it, regardless of their familiarity with the music of the time period.

“We do this music because, beyond its age, it has something to tell us, it speaks to us,” he says. “And we want to share that with larger audiences. It’s important we do art that is not only open to the connoisseur, but also bridges those boundaries to listeners of any type.”

However, with yet another “new” strain of Covid going around and Houston and hospitalizations on the rise, what if—Dio non voglia!—one member of this two-man team is out for the show?

“I think this is where Mario will have to sing and play!” Skarke laughs. “That would be a real singer-songwriter thing!”

Baroque Beginnings: Le Nuove Musiche is at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, September 12, at the Italian Cultural & Community Center, 1101 Milford. For more information, call 713-524-4222 or visit ICCCHouston.com. $25 non-members/$20 members.

For more on Harmonia Stellarum, visit HarmoniaStellarum.com
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero