Opus Colorado

Baroque Chamber Orchestra Magnificent

Friday’s performance (September 25) of the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado in Boulder was one of the finest performances of a local ensemble that I’ve heard in a long time, and that includes the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Like the members of the Alpenglow Chamber Festival ensemble, the Baroque Chamber Orchestra obviously enjoys performing together. One of the most important reasons, at least from my standpoint, is that they are all equally fine musicians. They know what to expect from themselves and from each other, and when the group has that kind of confidence the results can be wonderfully satisfying.

They opened their concert with a concerto by Tomaso Albinoni. It was the Concerto in C Major, Opus 5, Nr. 12, which means that it was the last concerto of the Opus 5 group. Albinoni was a Venetian composer, who, unlike the other Venetian composers, Vivaldi, Monteverdi, Gabrieli, and Merulo, never actively sought a position in the local churches. Albinoni also seemed to live a more private life than the other composers, even though his music was appreciated by the German composers. His works were published in London and Amsterdam where he had considerable success as a composer. The Concerto in C Major begins in typical concerto grosso style, but what was so exceptional about this performance was the terrace dynamics that the composer required. The terrace dynamics are dynamics that do not require a crescendo or decrescendo but a subito (sudden) piano or a subito forte. Not one member of the group made an error in judgment, and the result was so well-balanced that it was almost similar to a recording engineer twisting the volume knob, except that it was infinitely more musical. What was really interesting and revealing, was that they looked at each other and smiled because they knew that they had nailed it. The second movement of this work was typical slow-fast-slow, and the fast middle section contained a real workout for the first violin. It was played perfectly by Tekla Cunningham.

The next piece on the program was a Sonata for Three Violins by Biagio Marini. Marini was a violinist at St. Mark’s in Venice, and his contribution to the origin of the sonata allegro form, along with Alessandro Scarlatti and his son, Domenico, is crucial. This particular piece was antiphonal in which part of the chamber orchestra was in the front of the church and part was in the choir loft, similar to the antiphonal music of Giovanni Gabrieli. Again, Tekla Cunningham was excellent, as were Kathleen Leidig and Stacey Brady. It was refreshing to hear the Marini because he is often overlooked on Baroque programs in favor of those who are more well known.

The next composer on this program to be performed was Claudio Monteverdi. Monteverdi (1567-1643) is one of the most important composers in music history because his style of composition and his innovations helped to give birth to the Baroque. He was one of the first composers to assign specific instruments to the various parts in his works, he was largely responsible for the introduction of the continuo part which is played by the harpsichord and provides the underlying harmony for the ensemble, and the truly enormous development of the monodic style of the Baroque versus the polyphonic style of the Renaissance. The composition performed Friday night was his Scherzi Musicali for soprano and baritone, and also featured Tekla Cunningham and Allison Edberg on the violin. The soprano was Dr. MeeAe Nam and baritone was David Farwig. Though no longer a resident of Colorado, MeeAe Nam is well known to Colorado audiences. She now teaches at Eastern Michigan University- it is truly their gain and our loss. She is a fine soprano who has an uncanny sense of pitch and diction. She has sung all over the world. David Farwig is an equally remarkable baritone with voice qualities quite similar to that of a Heldon tenor, otherwise known as heroic tenor. It is very easy to imagine him singing the role of Parsifal in Wagner’s great opera. Like Dr. Nam, his diction is beyond reproach, and both were very easy to understand. And I must point out, that this entire performance was so marvelous because the entire ensemble, as well as Nam and Farwig, were so wonderfully musical,  virtuosic and equally matched. The Monteverdi that was performed was a little different from most Monteverdi that I am familiar with. The music in Monteverdi’s opera Arianna is subservient to the text and in the famous solo, Lasciatemi morire, wherein Arianna is exclaiming “Let die, let me die,” the music provided to her impassioned plea is only an accompaniment to the recitative. But in this composition, even though the text is sometimes sad and sometimes angry, the music is almost always cheerful. Throughout this performance both Nam and Farwig demonstrated the vocal technique to accomplish the ornamentation and to arrive strongly and surely on every single pitch. This was the first time I have ever heard David Farwig perform, and it was extremely impressive; vigorous and musical. I have heard Dr. Nam sing many times, and it is really difficult for me to tell when she breathes (how does she do that!), but her melodic lines always soar, and her phrasing is always impeccable. This work has six sections, and perhaps in her solo in the second section, the cello may have been a little bit loud. But I hasten to point out that Lara Turner is a fine cellist, and it could have been just the location where I was sitting. The violinists, Cunningham and Edberg were wonderful. What a joy this piece was!

After the intermission, the Baroque chamber players performed the well-known Concerto in D Major for Violin, Strings, and Continuo from La Straviganza, Op. 4, Nr. 11. In this little piece, Tekla Cunningham was again the violin soloist. It was in this composition that I noticed Ms. Cunningham’s bow. It had an outward curve of the stick, and from where I was sitting, the stick seemed to be round. In the Baroque period, the stick of the bow assumed an octagonal shape while the curve had an inward bend (toward the hair), and therefore requires less pressure from the player to get a good tone. I also noticed that she held the bow higher on the stick. None of this is any criticism of Tekla Cunningham, it was simply interesting. She may have been using an bow designed after the ones used in the early Baroque period. The cellist, Lara Turner, and the guitarist, William Simms were wonderful. All of the players once again demonstrated their remarkable ability as an ensemble in their dynamics and in the precision of their entrances.

Following the Vivaldi came a Sonata for Two Violins by Johann Rosenmuller. Rosenmuller was a composer from Leipzig, Germany. Much of his music was sacred, but for four years he was the composer at the Ospedale della Pieta, the orphanage for girls where Antonio Vivaldi was later director of music. It seems likely that much of his instrumental music came from this four years because the Ospedale had a competent chamber orchestra. This was a marvelous piece of music in which Kathleen Leidig and Stacey Brady excelled. The middle section of the third movement was a march, which I found delightful and completely unexpected.

The final piece on the program was again Vivaldi: the Concerto in F Major for Three Violins, Strings, and Continuo. Once again, the playing was superb, the terraced dynamics were perfect, and it was abundantly clear that these performers relished playing with each other. I have seen many performances where there seems to be a fight among the ensemble members. This kind of politics was totally absent in the Baroque Chamber Players. When time allows, I would really like to look at the score of this composition, for in the third movement there are some unusual chord progressions that sound more like Domenico Scarlatti than Antonio Vivaldi.

One puzzle for me in this marvelous evening was the instrument that William Simms performed on. Keep clearly in mind that my degrees are in piano performance and musicology, not stringed instruments. But, I have always had the understanding that a theorbo had a very wide neck and relatively few drone strings. The instrument that Mr. Simms performed on seemed to be what I would have called a chitarrone because of its very long neck and greater number of drone strings. There is a good comparison between the two on page 371 of Curt Sachs’ book, The History of Musical Instruments. However, this book was written in 1940, and I learned a long time ago that I thought I knew a lot until I read a second book. William Simms clearly knows more about this than I do.

This was a terrific concert and it was refreshing to hear nothing but Baroque music so very well – and so joyfully – played.