Up Next

The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore

The theme for St. Martin’s Chamber Choir’s 22nd (2015-’16) Season is “Stories in Choral Song,” where every concert has a narrative of some kind built into the programming. In our first concert of the season, it’s a single work that tells its own story, Menotti’s Madrigal Fable “The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore; or The Three Sundays of a Poet.”

The Madrigal Fable (or Comedy) is an old genre where a group of madrigals is pieced together to tell a sort of story, usually light-hearted. The earliest example is Il cicalamento delle donne al bucato (“The Gossip of the Wives in the Laundry” – sounds hilarious!!) by Alessandro Striggio (1567); but the best known is Orazio Vecchi’s L’Amfiparnaso (1594). It is now considered, as a genre, a precursor to opera, although there was no acting by the singers and only minimal scenery involved.

Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) borrowed this long-dead form for his 1956 work “The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore,” which, although it is comical in places, is definitely not a “comedy” in the sense of a happy ending. In this piece, which is made up of 14 choral movements (12 of which are a cappella) and 5 instrumental movements, Menotti asks for dancers to act out the story as the musicians sing and play (St. Martin’s will be joined by dancers from Ballet Arts, choreographed by Paul Noel Fiorino). The story is of a poet (“The Man in the Castle”) who successively appears in the town with the three mythical creatures of the title as pets. Each in turn becomes fashionable among the shallow and trendy townspeople; and when the next creature appears, they kill off the previous one on the assumption that this is what the poet did to his pet. In the end, the townspeople are berated by the dying poet as they storm the castle and find that all three creatures are still alive and surrounding his bed as he dies. Menotti explains that they represent, successively, youth, prime of life, and old age; and the fable, with text also by Menotti, is a critique of transient fads, the shallowness of those who blithely toss aside that which is no longer considered stylish, and the unwitting cruelty of many people towards artists in general.

Menotti’s original instrumentation calls for an odd assemblage of 11 instruments. I have done my own arrangement of the instrumental parts for string quartet (a big summer project, that!!), which will be played by Confluence String Quartet, with which fine ensemble we have previously collaborated at least twice before (William Grant Stills’ “Christmas in the Americas,” and Haydn’s “Seven Last Words” spring immediately to my mind). The program will also include Confluence Quartet playing  “Lullaby and Grotesque” by Rebecca Clarke and St. Martin’s singing Samuel Barber’s “Reincarnations“.

The concert will be performed twice, as follows:

Friday, October 9, 7:30 pm,  Saint John’s Episcopal Cathedral, Denver
Sunday, October 11, 3:00 pm, St. Gabriel the Archangel Episcopal Church, Cherry Hills Village

Tickets may be purchased here, or (303) 298-1970. The Sunday venue has limited seating, so advance tickets are strongly recommended there.