Classical & Opera: Music with a smile

Leonardo da Vinci's celebrated painting, the Mona Lisa, is unusual in a number of ways, and is certainly not representative of the standard portraiture of the time. One factor differentiating it, for a start, is that the sitter smiles. What is making her smile?

According to Da Vinci's contemporary, the art historian Giorgio Vasari, it was music - for he notes that Da Vinci "engaged musicians who played and sang and continually jested in order to chase away the melancholy which painters usually give to portraits." True or not, the anecdote at least provides a highly imaginative starting conceit for what should be a fine evening of new music theatre from the pristine viol consort, Concordia, when they give Music for the Mona Lisa at the Cochrane Theatre on 26 May, this week, as part of the BOC Covent Garden Festival.

"The Mona Lisa was painted in 1503," says Concordia's leader, Mark Levy, "and, just as it is a revolutionary painting, so music, too, was going through its own Renaissance at the time. Most music before 1500 might still, for want of a better term, be described as 'medieval'. At least, most secular compositions before then are all rather flat and angular. Interestingly, of course, the Mona Lisa itself is not a flat or angular painting - there are no planes on her face whatsoever, which seems to be effortlessly shaped from curves and natural forms. And, just as there's a new sense of freedom in the painting, so we find much music of the time following suit."

Italian musical life of Da Vinci's time was, to some extent, dominated by northerners crossing the Alps, and working in Milan, Florence and Venice. Yet, again, circa 1500, a new flowering of native composers occurred, with indigenous Italian songs worked via a new-found richness of harmony and mood-painting gradually emerging. Mark Levy has no doubts that a "Renaissance man of Leonardo's dimensions would have been aware of these developments, especially because these new harmonies were, equally, charting a new emotional territory at the same time."

Yet, having come up with the idea of Music for the Mona Lisa, Concordia have still had to put in a great deal of work assembling their precise and meticulous programme. "Part of the joy of a project like this," says Levy, "is the chance to gather a range of works together under a single banner. Great though much of this music is, it's also often very short and fragmented. So, to bring a gamut of it into an overall structural concept, seems to provide both context and weight." As to the actual pieces, which embrace Isaac, Compere, Desprez and, of course, Anon, Levy has located them from a number of sources, though often, as he says, the precise ensemble of viols, recorders, cornetts and shawms employed, "has to be rendered by a process of what might be called educated guesswork."

Yet Music for the Mona Lisa won't just consist of music. Aside from the stunning counter-tenor tones of Robin Blaze, there's the voice of Leonardo, a dancer and back projection. "We have something both alluring and intriguing in store," adds Levy. "Far from a mere fusty exercise. But, no, the musicians don't dress up. The audience is serenaded back to Renaissance Italy, like Mona, but from a codpiece-free zone."

'Music for the Mona Lisa' is at the Cochrane Theatre, WC1 (0171-242 7040) 26 May, 7.30pm