Last year, Vesuvius Ensemble’s Christmas concert had 60 people standing in the cold outside the Heliconian Hall because they could not get in.
This year, they have two concert dates. The first is already sold out, and the second has only a handful of tickets left.
Their repertoire is perhaps not what you would expect: 16th century Neapolitan music. It’s not exactly the Baroque music commissioned by churches and high-powered patrons in Europe that are most popular among today’s audiences. Neapolitan music, by contrast, is a folk tradition specific to the region of Southern Italy centred around Naples. It continues to be transmitted orally from one person to another to this day.
While it isn’t a repertoire that you hear in concert halls very often, it is a living tradition that Francesco Pellegrino, Artistic Director of the Vesuvius Ensemble, grew up listening to in Campania as sung by farmers and elders in their everyday life.
For Pellegrino, Neapolitan music is filled with memories of the people and places in his early life. More than a musical tradition, it is an integral part of who he is. So much so, that he decided to quit his career as a successful opera singer, in order to devote all his time to the preservation and performance of this musical tradition.
“I used to love opera. I still do. But when I play the guitar and sing, I feel a different kind of joy.” He continues, “In opera, you are in a box. You have to follow the conductor, the orchestra, and you are not completely free. In this repertoire, I can be myself a hundred percent. A real interpreter, expressing my feelings, emotions, and memories.”
When he moved to Toronto in 2001, he noticed that the city had a vibrant folk and baroque music scene. It was the kind of city that carved out a space for the preservation and performance of musical practices from different times and places, which was exactly where he wanted to be.
The stars aligned when he met Marco Cera 10 years ago. They immediately recognized in each other the shared passion for this music. When Cera introduced Lucas Harris into the mix, Harris was almost overwhelmed with excitement with the artistic possibilities. Together, they founded the Vesuvius Ensemble as we know it today.
Their unwavering commitment to the preservation and performance of Neapolitan music certainly makes Vesuvius an artistic force to be reckoned with. But what is drawing audiences out to their sold out concerts, the majority of whom have no personal connection with the music or the region?
Prof. Catherine Moore from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music offers this insight:
“What they collect into a concert is more than just music. It’s a tradition, a heritage, a way of thinking of music as part of a fabric of a particular part in the world.”
The Vesuvius Ensemble’s passion for the music of this region and period comes through in the care and attention to details that goes into each program—from the ethnomusicological research, the restoration and care of instruments, and the unexpected insights that put what audiences might already know about Baroque music in a different light.
The Tarantella, for example, is a popular musical form from Italy that is often used by baroque and classical composers as a dance. In 2017, Vesuvius spent months meticulously developing an entire program entitled “Le Tarantelle” devoted to exploring its social and cultural history.
From the program description: “In the countrysides of Southern Italy, the Tarantella is much more than a purification dance—it is part of an entire medical and spiritual philosophy known as Tarantism. The musicians become healers charged with the task of finding just the right rhythm that will make the tarantata (bite victim) get up and dance away the venom in her veins.”
Early this season, their program ‘Tale of Tales’ featured early versions of popular fairy tales—such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty—written in the Neapolitan dialect by Giambattista Basile. After the concert, numerous audiences inquired about obtaining English translations of Basile’s stories. Pellegrino was more than happy to point them in the right direction.
The revelation that comes from realizing the Baroque musical tradition we have always known might not be the whole story, and the curiosity that their programs inspire, are perhaps the magical elements that consistently brings out curious audiences.
The effort involved in each program is truly a labour of love. The breadth and depth of each member’s experience, and their genuine passion for this musical tradition, is what takes it over the top to create one unforgettable musical concert.
As Moore describes it:
“Traditional music tends to be thought of as old music, but it is living music with lots of similarities for centuries. How to bring that into the modern world, and make people excited? Part of it is in a vibrant and energetic performance, taking down barriers of formal music, improvised music. You can see before you [at a Vesunius concert] it is all those things.”
The secret of Vesuvius is getting out, and it is bitter sweet for the loyal fans who have discovered such a musical gem. However, if Vesuvius has figured out a formula for engaging modern audiences with music that has stood the test of time, perhaps it might be a secret worth sharing.