Go to a concert by an Italian male chorus of mostly Italian folk songs and the prospect that first flashes to mind is a substantial dose of Neapolitan emoting. "O Sole Mio" is as stereotypically Italian to the American mind as Naples' pizza.
Thus it was all the more refreshing to hear yesterday's midday concert at the Western Presbyterian Church (sponsored by the World Bank) of an a cappella group called Coro Stelutis from Bologna. The Coro's restrained, almost austere, style is about as close to Neapolitan excess as Bologna's glorious Northern Italian culinary tradition is to the Neapolitan fetish for tomatoes and mozzarella.
The Coro, on its third American tour, was founded in 1954, and according to yesterday's program notes, has devoted itself primarily to "ethnological musicological research above all in the region where it sings" (much of the music is researched from folk sources by chorus singers or by director Giorgio Vacchi).
At yesterday's concert this often meant work songs and songs of personal separation. Some were centuries old, and others fairly recent. Of the 10 pieces on the program, the most arresting came from 50 years ago -- "Song of the Pile Drivers," a Venetian group labor song not unlike similar work songs with their origins in American chain gangs. As described in the program notes, the song "served to coordinate the rise and fall of a pile driver lifted by a hand-coordinated winch" that would drive stakes into the Venetian lagoon. An especially haunting repeated half-step bass line imbued the melody with mystery.
Another work song had its origins in the building of the famed Bologna-Florence train tunnel under the Apennines.
There was a strong touch of melancholy in such songs of estrangement as the one about the young man sent to war in Somaliland only to return and find that his sweetheart has perished.
The Coro Stelutis is a disciplined group, with precise attacks and releases, that makes no pretense to flashiness.
In a gesture to the substantial audience, they concluded with "America the Beautiful" in English.