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L'Arpeggiata musicians recorded a program similar to tonight's performance which they released on the CD in 2010 also called "Via Crucis." (NPR)

L'Arpeggiata At Carnegie Hall

by Brian Wise
Mar 15, 2012 (WQXR-APM)

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There is no shortage of concert halls and churches offering performances of the Passion story this time of year, whether it's Bach's St. John Passion or modern versions by Osvaldo Golijov and David Lang.

L'Arpeggiata's Via Crucis project is another — but with a twist.

The Paris-based period instrument group will join the Corsican vocal ensemble Barbara Furtuna at Zankel Hall Thursday night for an unusual program that features works by the 17th-century Italian composers like Monteverdi, Heinrich Biber and Tarquinio Merula as well as traditional music from Italy and Corsica. As such, it keeps feet in both the classical and folk music camps, blending the sacred and secular, notated and improvised.

Over the past decade, L'Arpeggiata has frequently presented genre-spanning programs that seek to demonstrate how Baroque art music drew liberally from the creative freedoms of the folk and popular spheres. The group is not afraid to stretch the performance traditions of early music, incorporating spontaneous detours, sultry Latin riffs and earthy vocals. Artistic Director Christina Pluhar has said the point is not to pander through crossover commercialism but to create a "living Baroque."

In a video interview made for Carnegie Hall, Pluhar discusses how the ensemble previously recorded an album called Los Impossibles, which traced Mexican folk styles back to manuscripts in 17th-century Italy and Spain. "We don't casually mix different styles," she says, "but I always try to find the connection with the music that we actually perform with the 17th century." (New York audiences can sample L'Arpeggiata's programming in three other concerts this week as part of the Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall.)

Via Crucis, or the Way of the Cross, is based on the group's 2010 album of the same title. Seventeenth-century Italy is the starting point, but the sounds of dulcimer, harp and archlute bring to mind modern folk traditions. Movements from Biber's Rosary Sonata lead to ululating chants and florid Baroque laments by Merula give way to foot-stamping dances.

L'Arpeggiata's latest album is Los Pájaros Perdidos (The Lost Birds), which turns its focus to Venezuela, Argentina and Paraguay. In it the group attempts to show how South American plucked instruments like the cuatro, bandolin and charango are direct descendants of those introduced from Spain and Portugal, particularly the lute, Baroque guitar and Renaissance harp. Playing techniques have been cultivated locally and adapted to indigenous songs, just as dances and songs exhibit rhythmic and harmonic structures that would be recognizable to anyone familiar with Baroque forms.

If, like many of L'Arpeggiata's projects, this sounds didactic in concept, the outcome is quite the opposite — sensual, colorful and a bit raucous. As musicians who sometimes make room for a dancer or actor on stage, it's safe to say they keep it as loose as possible.

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