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Album review: Singing about love is eternal -- and so is snobbery

By John Terauds on September 24, 2013

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Today’s singer-songwriters with a guitar in hand and a song about the joy and pain of love at the tip of the tongue have musical ancestors going back hundreds of years. Local tenor Bud Roach introduces us to a compelling slice of that history in the music of Alessandro Grandi.

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.

Grandi was the Danny Michel of early 17th century Venice, writing at a time when more and more people were strumming guitars for personal entertainment. He was a prolific composer whose secular music — much of it songs for solo voice self-accompanied on guitar — remains largely unrecorded.

In a new album, Roach has selected 23 songs from Grandi’s third published collection, from 1626.

And what does a dude with a guitar sing about? Love, of course. Over and over again, about how it enflames and intoxicates one moment and causes unbearable pain the next. Or, as “Sotto aspetto ridente” explains:

budUnder the smiling looks
Of an angelic happiness
There is, invisible,
A hidden deadly poison.
Don’t believe in Love!
When Love seems friendly,
What cruel enemy he turns out to be!

What makes these songs worth listening to is, as with the ballads of 2013, the freedom of movement the singer has between the guitar chords and the melody. The baroque guitar, which came to Venice from Spain, is strummed in a way that provides a variety of dance rhythms to give the music momentum.

Roach is clearly in his element here, stretching time and embellishing melody to suit the need, in true storytelling fashion. It helps that his strong, lyric tenor voice is a pleasure to listen to.

Like any narrow genre of music, Grandi’s songs share a lot of similarities in harmonic structure as well as melodic pattern. If you discover you’re not a huge fan of these pieces, the cumulative effect is a bit overwhelming. The thing is, Roach himself is so compelling that it’s worth giving this music a chance. Ultimately, it may work best incorporated into a more varied playlist on your favourite MP3 player.

Roach is a rare breed of musician who is as fine a scholar as he is a storyteller. He provides some fascinating background in the liner notes, including a short lesson on the novel form of guitar chording notation (known as alfabeto) developed in Grandi’s time to make the guitar accessible even to people who couldn’t read music.

Along the way, Roach also points out how, because this was popular music, these songs and this style of playing the guitar were looked down upon by many people in the day.

The liner notes include a caustic little quip from a Madrid writer lamenting the decline of the lute in 1611: “… now the guitar is nothing more than a cowbell, so easy to play, especially in rasgueado [strumming] that there is not a stable-boy who is not a musician of the guitar.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

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Roach and his period-performance ensemble Capella Intima  — including sopranos Erin Bardua and Emily Klassen, alto Jannifer Enns Modolo and organist Erika Reiman — perform music of 17th century Milanese Benedictine nuns in the Great Hall at St Paul’s Church on Bloor St E. on Saturday at 3 p.m. Details here.

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Here is Roach singing “Consenti” by Alessandro Grandi:

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
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