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Agnes Coakley Cox (soprano) and Nathaniel Cox (cornetto and theorbo) founded In Stile Moderno nearly six years ago in Boston.

The Arts

Sweet torments

In Stile Moderno returns to BMC with a concert full of romance, 17th-century style

BRATTLEBORO—If you’ve ever been tormented by love — and who of us hasn’t? — the early music group In Stile Moderno has created a concert just for you.

“How Sweet the Torment: Madrigals of Monteverdi and his Contemporaries” will be offered Sunday, Jan. 21, at 6 p.m., at the Brattleboro Music Center, 72 Blanche Moyse Way. Tickets are $25-$10 and are available at the door.

In Stile Moderno — the name means “in the modern style” — was founded in 2012.

“We picked that name for our ensemble because we’re specializing in 17th-century music,” said Nathaniel Cox, who co-founded the group with his wife, soprano Agnes Coakley.

“In the beginning of the 17th century,” he continued, “there were a lot of changes in musical styles, so this was the beginning of music for solo voice — monody — as contrasted with polytomy — music from multiple voices. At the beginning of the 17th Century, there was a transition to a single important melodic voice with accompaniment.”

The program’s theme is love, or to be more exact, painful love, a favorite subject of composers in the early 17th century. And in every century, come to think of it.

“We borrowed the title from one of the pieces in the program,” Cox said. “We chose a selection of songs that somewhat bear this theme: Love is so painful and I’m in such torment and yet it is so beautiful, so sweet, so addicting.

“There will be jealous pieces, angry pieces, sad and depressed pieces, happy pieces. They imply the singer is perfectly content to suffer. And there are also pieces that very quickly go through all of these emotions.

“That’s particularly interesting. One of the things about this genre of music is something they weren’t able to do before: short sections drastically different all within a single piece.”

Early instruments

Cox will be playing two early instruments. One is the cornetto, a wind instrument somewhat like a recorder but bearing a different mouthpiece.

“It’s made of wood and has finger holes similar to a recorder or any wind instrument, Cox said. “But the mouthpiece is cup-shaped, sort of like a trumpet. The embouchure technique is similar to the brass instruments, but this one has finger holes.”

The cornetto was popular in the 16th and early 17th century.

“It was particularly common in Venice,” Cox said. “It’s considered one of the most difficult instruments, but it comes closest to imitating the human voice. That was the goal of the instrumentalist — the ideal of what their instrument should try to imitate.”

Cox will also be playing the theorbo, a lute with an exceptionally long neck.

“It’s been modified to give it an extended bass range,” he said. “If you want lower notes, there are a limited number of ways to get them. Thicker strings work, but only to a certain point. If they get too thick they lose resonance.

“So we increase the density of the strings. We wrap metal around the strings. But the technology for winding metal around strings wasn’t invented until the end of the 17th century, so with the theorbo, the only strings available were plain guts that were extended out on that neck.”

Coakley’s clear, rounded, expressive and passionate soprano is the opposite of classical singing, or what has come to be known as bel canto, Cox said.

“The human voice is the same instrument they had back then, but there’s still a lot of work that goes into researching into how people sang back then,” Cox said. “The biggest difference — or challenge — is the idea of classical singing. Bel canto — a full voice with heavy vibrato — is a sort of 19th [and] 20th century concept. This is almost a complete opposite to the aesthetic we find in the 17th century.

“Here the absolute priority is making the text clear. The ultimate goal of the music is to move the passions of the audience, to affect their emotions. With classical music, beauty is the ultimate result. In our period, the emotional impact is important. That can’t have an effect unless the text is clear. Then comes rhythm and then the tone, or sound.”

Romance in Basel

Cox, who is a Brattleboro native, was once a student at BMC. He grew up surrounded by music. His father, Douglas C. Cox, is known worldwide as a maker of exceptional violins. The fact that his son doesn’t play the violin is proof that adolescent rebellion exists even in the realm of classical music.

“It’s partially because I grew up with a violin maker for a father that I was never seriously drawn to a violin,” Cox said. “It was too easy. I felt I needed to do my own thing. I kind of wish now I could play the violin. One of the problems with playing a violin is how expensive they are, and that obviously wasn’t a problem for me.”

Cox and Coakley met at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland, a music school exclusively dedicated to teaching music dating from before 1800.

“I did my undergraduate degree in a conservatory where we were taught classical music,” Cox said. “I found it a little bit constraining.

“I like the freedom that comes with working with earlier music — more personal interpretation I can bring to my performance. I like the research aspect. It’s not just about doing things ‘the right way.’ It’s about going back to primary sources, finding music that hasn’t been performed, doing something people haven’t heard before. There’s something exciting in that.”

Cox said there was a wealth of early material available to be studied and performed.

“All the music we’re performing is published,” Cox said. “Especially in Venice around 1600, there was such an active music publication industry that there’s an incredible amount of music that survives.

“And there are enormous amounts of writing about music that helps us figure out how they performed it, what instruments they used, how they used the instruments, what occasions they used the music for. Performers have to address and study these things.”

The concert will feature duets from Claudio Monteverdi’s Seventh Book of Madrigals, paired with pieces by lesser-known composers such as Bellerofonte Castaldi and Benedetto Ferrari.

In Stile Moderno will perform Monteverdi’s duets with soprano and cornetto — instead of the more usual two sopranos — showcasing the unique sound of the cornetto imitating and blending with the voice. The rich texture of theorbo and baroque guitar will also be featured in works by Francesco Corbetta and Bellerofonte Castaldi.

They will also be playing for the first time with guitarist and theorbist Simon Martyn-Ellis, who will add nuanced continuo playing as well as fiery guitar rhythms.

“We’re using very dynamic and very exciting texts,” Cox said. “We want a music that expresses them so we can elicit these passionate emotions in the audience.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #442 (Wednesday, January 17, 2018). This story appeared on page B1.

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