To sense the essential musical spirit of the vocal quartet Barbara Furtuna, watch the singers’ hands. At times, they are those of a conductor, moving through space to suggest an expanding breath or to end a note with precision. But several times during their concert Saturday night at Alverno College’s Chapel of Mary Immaculate, they seemed to lovingly cradle the very sound waves their voices created. Maxime Merlandi, who sung the lead vocal in many of the songs, held the resonant air in front of him as if it was precious and fragile, a tangible object he cherished for a few moments before sending it into the world.
In a sense, the music of Barbara Furtuna is exactly such an object. The group practices in the tradition of Corsican Polyphony, a vocal style dating back to the 11th century. The style experienced a rebirth in the 1970s, when Corsican nationalism sought to rescue the island’s identity from centuries of back-and-forth colonial influence at the hands of Europe’s major powers.
The ancient roots are clear from the music’s demonstrative sense of harmony. This is not “polyphony” in the Baroque sense—the voices don’t independently meander around each other as they might in a Bach fugue. Instead, the quartet creates resonant chords that seem to bloom into the surrounding air, at times inflected by little dances of melismatic ornamentation as the singers move between notes.
One key to the quartet’s gorgeous sound is its blend of voices. Jean-Pierre Marchetti’s high tenor has bite, the slightly rough timbre of an oboe or English horn. Merlandi’s lead tenor cuts through the voices with the pungent sweetness of an alto saxophone. Baritone André Dominici is smooth as silk, and bass Jean-Philipe Giussani is a substantial anchor.
The quartet sings into a single microphone, like a bluegrass group doing a live radio show. They clearly had the power to fill the space without amplification (as they showed in their encore, a rousing version of “Dio vi salvi Regina,” the Corsican national anthem). But clustered around microphone, Barbara Furtuna perhaps revealed the essence of their musical tradition–something intimate, a sharing between men (and more recently, women) of heritage and history. We were honored to be able to listen in for a while.