Agnes Coakley Cox and Nathaniel Cox of In Stile Moderno, which will perform “Madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi (for Five Voices and theorbo)” on March 10.
Courtesy photo
Agnes Coakley Cox and Nathaniel Cox of In Stile Moderno, which will perform “Madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi (for Five Voices and theorbo)” on March 10.

‘Good music can transcend culture and time’

In Stile Moderno brings 17th-century madrigals to life at the Brattleboro Music Center

The madrigal, a genre of 16th- and 17th-century music, will be showcased on Sunday, March 10, at the Brattleboro Music Center when In Stile Moderno performs "Madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi (for Five Voices and Theorbo)."

An ensemble for early music which began in 2012 in Basel, Switzerland, In Stile Moderno was founded by soprano Agnes Coakley Cox and Brattleboro's own lutenist/cornettist, Nathaniel Cox.

According to its website, the group was named after the "modern style" of music which emerged in Italy around 1600. The group is dedicated to music of the 17th century and combines "fidelity to historical performance practice with a drive to make early music accessible and relevant to modern audiences."

"We will explore the riches of Monteverdi's nine books of madrigals, from pristine counterpoint to virtuosic showpieces," Agnes Coakley Cox told The Commons. "It's exciting to do an all-Monteverdi concert."

The 4 p.m. concert features Agnes Coakley Cox, soprano; Julia Soojin Cavallaro, mezzo soprano; Corey Dalton Hart, tenor; Adam Jacob Simon, baritone; Andrew Padgett, bass; and Nathaniel Cox, theorbo.

Mary Greene, executive director of the Brattleboro Music Center, said that the concert will demonstrate "both the versatility and virtuosity of programming and performance that they are known for."

The Commons reached soprano and cofounder Agnes Coakley Cox, 37, at a rehearsal recently to talk about the madrigal, the group's upcoming performance, and why this music still resonates after hundreds of years.

Separately, we reached co-founder and lutenist/cornettist Nathaniel Cox, 37, at home in Greenfield, Massachusetts, to talk about growing up in Brattleboro, switching to the theorbo, and why this music is timeless.

Following are excerpts of our conversations.

Agnes Coakley Cox

Victoria Chertok: Where did you study music?

Agnes Coakley Cox: I grew up in Watertown, Massachusetts, but was born in England. I studied music at Yale University and after college moved to Berlin, Germany, where I taught English as a second language.

While there, I went to an Anglican Church in Berlin and met a lot of musicians who encouraged me to push myself with singing and conducting. A friend said, "Why don't you go to Basel, Switzerland, and audition for graduate school with this voice teacher?" I didn't think I would get in, but I did, so it was an unexpected path for me.

V.C.: What was Monteverdi known for?

A.C.C.: He was a composer working around the turn of 17th century in Italy, at what is considered the beginning of the Baroque period. He was especially famous for his madrigals-pieces for voices.

V.C.: What makes a madrigal?

A.C.C.: Some people may have heard of madrigals in the context of madrigal choirs; people associate it with a lot of "fa la la la la."

Most people have heard English madrigals. They were inspired by madrigals from Renaissance Italy in the 16th century. It was all about having five voices that were equally important - and the subject matter of the songs is a bit formulaic, i.e., a shepherd and shepherdess, and pastoral themes.

V.C.: What is text painting?

A.C.C.: You will hear one by one the voices that go up relating to the shepherd going up the hill. It's called a "madrigalism" in music theory. It's a fun aspect of these pieces.

V.C.: Where did they perform madrigals?

A.C.C.: Since this was secular music, most would have been performed in [the] homes [of] people who were wealthy enough to have musicians. These pieces were also published and you could go buy the music and sing them yourself.

V.C.: What do you like about performing in Brattleboro?

A.C.C.: We love the artistic community in Brattleboro! Nathaniel grew up taking lessons at the BMC. The musicians he met in Brattleboro were really formative in his journey. Stephen Stearns of New England Youth Theatre and his wife, Bonnie, have been really supportive of both of us and really encouraged us as we built our ensemble.

Stephen used to tell Nathaniel, "Don't be the best; be the only" - which I think is wonderful advice when you are pursuing a career in the arts.

V.C.: What do you do when not rehearsing or performing with In Stile Moderno?

A.C.C.: Nathaniel and I have a 3-year-old son, and I teach vocal students at Deerfield Academy and at the educational arm of the Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra.

Nathaniel Cox

Victoria Chertok: You grew up in Brattleboro and started playing music at an early age. Which instrument did you start playing?

Nathaniel Cox: I feel like I grew up with music being a very big part of our house and our family. I played trumpet, and my brother played French horn, which was ironic considering that my father is Douglas Cox, the violin maker and a very active member of the music scene in Brattleboro.

V.C.: You said your teacher at BMC was very instrumental in helping you choose music as a career.

N.C.: One of my important early influences was Dan Farina, who taught me trumpet at BMC through high school. He was a wonderful man and an incredibly supportive teacher who deserves enormous credit for inspiriting me to become a musician.

V.C.: Who were some of your other early musical influences?

N.C.: Jim Kurty at Academy School. And another big influence was Stephen Rice, director of bands at Brattleboro Union High School.

Every day started with either band or chorus. It was a great way to start the day, especially because of how wonderful Steve Rice and Mitch Davis (chorus teacher) were as teachers and as human beings. It's one of my fondest memories to look back on.

They were really passionate people who loved the music and were able to communicate that passion for the music to their students and seemed to take personal interest in the students who were clearly benefiting from that.

V.C.: Upon graduating from BUHS, you attended Oberlin Conservatory as a double major in trumpet performance and Russian language and literature. How was your experience there?

N.C.: Oberlin was a great experience for me to realize that I wanted to do something different than the trumpet. What I was really interested in was early music - Renaissance and baroque music.

I tried a baroque trumpet and played that a lot at Oberlin. That is where I picked up the cornetto - a distant cousin of the trumpet. Once I discovered the cornetto, I realized that was what I wanted to do.

V.C.: You also attended Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland, and that is where you met Agnes.

N.C.: After graduating from Oberlin, I studied for five years with Bruce Dickey, the world master of the cornetto, in Switzerland. That is where I met Agnes, who was studying there at the same time!

V.C.: You said you had a bit of "lute envy" when you studied in Switzerland. How so?

N.C.: There were so many people playing lute and theorbo, and I thought this looked like the coolest instrument. A friend of mine convinced me that I could do it, too, so he helped me find an instrument to borrow and started giving me lessons.

After a year or so more and more people started asking me to play with them, and eventually I started calling myself a theorbo player.

V.C.: What is it about this music that still appeals, hundreds of years after it was composed?

N.C.: There is something universal about a lot of this music; the themes such as love and suffering still apply to music today.

There is also something universal about good music that can transcend culture and time. Biologically, we are the same, and our ears work the same way.

V.C.: What drew you to performing this repertoire?

N.C.: Part of what drew me to this music is the sense of freedom and flexibility. As a performer, I have more agency to approach the music on my terms - there is much less rigidity than in traditional classical music.

I can find a piece in an old manuscript and realize my own interpretation of it, informed by my study of historical performance practice. I don't have the luxury or the burden of generations of teachers and recordings influencing my interpretation.

V.C.: How do you approach doing research when beginning to learn one of these pieces?

N.C.: There is also the element of historical research and musicology connected to the performance. It's an optional add-on. You're not required to be an academic to perform early music, but if you are interested in what people were doing in Venice in the 1620s and what was going on politically and socially, you could see how all of this was influencing the music being written and performed.

I have to figure out how I want to interpret a piece, and I apply the knowledge I've gained about how musicians interpreted this music in the 17th century. It is active participation - bringing music from the page to life.

It's fascinating to look at the music through that lens and put together programs that can capture a moment in history.

V.C.: What exactly is the therobo?

N.C.: A theorbo is a plucked instrument, a member of the lute family with 14 strings. There are six strings on the fingerboard tuned in fourths and thirds (like a guitar) and 8 bass strings extending to a second peg box that are about 5.5 feet long.

Each bass string plays a single note, and the strings are tuned in a descending scale. The top six strings are used to play melody and chords, and the bass strings are able to reinforce the bass line.

It is the perfect instrument for accompanying Monteverdi's madrigals. It has a powerful and supportive sound that never covers up or interferes with the delicacy of the vocal lines. There is an enormous range of musical effects you can produce by plucking the strings in different ways.

* * *

In Stile Moderno performs on Sunday, March 10 at 4 p.m. at the Brattleboro Music Center, 72 Blanche Moyse Way in Brattleboro. For more information and tickets - $20 for general admission or $25 at the door - visit or call 802-257-4523.

Victoria Chertok covers arts and entertainment in Vermont for The Commons. She is a classically trained harpist and received a B.A. in music at Bucknell University.

This Arts item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.

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