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Blessings, Curses and a Charm

Vermont’s Arioso Chamber Ensemble presents a premiere, “Six Curses and a Charm” by Carol Wood of Saxtons River, written for the group consisting of Linda Radtke, alto; Alison Cerutti, piano; and Elizabeth Reid, viola. Also on the program, the Arpeggione sonata by Franz Schubert, D821; two Brahms songs, Op 91; and “Mirabeau Bridge,” also by Wood. 

Arioso’s performances are Friday, Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m., at the Richmond Free Library in Richmond; Saturday Nov. 5 at 7:30 p.m., at Christ Church in Montpelier; and ending in Saxtons River at Main Street Arts at 2 p.m. This last concert ends with a reception. Donations are solicited at the door, with a $20 suggested adult admission.

Wood first connected with the chamber ensemble through Radtke, when Wood’s “Saxtons River Suite” was premiered by members of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and the vocal ensemble Counterpoint in 2015. Wood then discovered the members of Arioso.

“When I got to know their passionate and beautiful work, I knew that I wanted to try to write something for them. What I came up with was settings of two kinds of very old curses — “curse tablets” from the ancient world and book curses from the medieval period. The curse tablets are inscriptions written on lead and often thrown into springs or wells, usually cursing someone for theft or some other wrongdoing. 

The most famous of these are the Curse Tablets to Sulis Minerva, written in Latin and found in the waters at Bath, England, although one curse tablet from a gladiator has survived in the ruins of the Roman amphitheater in Wales. The goddess Sulis was worshiped as a Celtic god in pre-Roman times, and then merged with Minerva. 

Composer Wood says of her piece: “Another kind of curse, the book curse, is quite often found in medieval books. When you think about what was involved in making a book in the Middle Ages — all the sheep or calves killed, drying and curing and scraping their skins, making ink, making quills, not to mention the tedious hours of copying every word by hand — it is very easy to understand why it was not at all unusual for a scribe to write a curse at the end of a book, calling down excommunication as well as physical horrors on anyone who stole that book.” 

She ends the set with another kind of medieval magic, an incantation to keep bees from flying away, written in Anglo-Saxon times and discovered in the margins of a book in the 11th century. Wood will show slides of the original tablets at each performance.

 Also on the program, two songs by Johannes Brahms for alto, viola, and piano. A sacred cradle song is a kind of  enchanted blessing, a mother asking the holy angels to quiet the wind so that her child can sleep, using a medieval carol as an echo of Mary for Jesus. In “Longing at Rest,” in a peaceful evening the wind and the birds whisper the world to slumber. 

Reid and Cerutti join together in Franz Schubert’s “Arpeggione” sonata, D. 821, written for a now-extinct instrument invented in 1826, a sort of bowed guitar. A favorite of chamber music lovers, the sonata’s themes are both wistful and joyous, with poignant and elegant textures throughout. 

Find out more at ariosochambermusic.org or on Facebook.