Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Rebel & "Period Instruments" on the Rise: A Journey Into the Baroque

Rebel (with a tree)
The New Season is upon us – and not just Autumn: Labor Day has passed, the kids are back in school (for that matter, Rosh Hoshana begins Oct. 2nd) – and the 35th Anniversary Season of Market Square Concerts begins this Saturday, the 1st of October, at Market Square Church beginning at 8:00!

While you're used to string quartets and pianists on chamber music programs, we begin the season with Rebel, one of the much-talked about “early music ensembles” known for its vitality, clarity and compelling performances. They're bringing a program of Baroque music from 1617 to 1747 to Harrisburg with familiar names like Vivaldi, Corelli and Telemann and less well known names like William Boyce as well as unfamiliar if not unknown names like Biagio Marini, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Francesco Mancini and Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli who, if they didn't have their 15 minutes of international fame in 17th Century Europe, were among those numerous court composers producing a vast amount of music for their music-loving employers, aristocrats and churches across Italy and Germany at a time when musicians – like their better-known counterparts Bach and Handel – found a way to practice their art and make a living at it, too.

Here, the ensemble Rebel plays the preludio from Arcangelo Corelli's Sonata in G Major, Op. 4 no. 10, from their 2008 recording on the Dorian Label:

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In the early-1960s, I remember hearing recordings on the radio by an orchestra considered something of a novelty: playing music from the Baroque Era on instruments that this music would have originally been played on, instruments that for one reason or another would have long been replaced by ones we tend to call “modern” instruments. While still called trumpets or oboes or even violins, how these instruments were made today is a far cry from the instruments Handel would have heard play his Water Music in 1717: trumpets didn't have valves then; oboes didn't have as many keys; violins (themselves a fairly new instrument on the scene) were played with gut strings and the bows were completely different. Instead of flutes, there were recorders – which to a modern music lover of the 1960s meant those annoying things relegated to children's education programs that looked like a cross between prototype of a clarinet (without a reed) and a flutophone, despite its fine ancient heritage.

The problem was, they were mostly out-of-tune, unreliable in pitch, impossible to balance and would later remind me of the less than legendary Portsmouth Sinfonia...

My initial response – that these instruments should not be played by people who should not be playing instruments period – was that this too would pass and we can go back to listening to satisfying renderings of this great music performed by our great orchestras.

But once musicians figured out how exactly to play these instruments properly and play them in a musical manner with a sense of historical accuracy about them (whatever that might be to a listener today), suddenly we could hear things in this music no one for two hundred years had noticed: not the least of which was, after all, the music!

This was not music meant to be played by beastly over-extended philharmonics in cavernous concert halls: and as much as many of my generation grew up hearing Handel's Water Music in Sir Hamilton Harty's delightful arrangement, it was, after all, an arrangement.

And for every agony those early recordings assaulted my eardrums with, there was the very real question, now, of “just what would this music sound like on the instruments these composers wrote it for?”

And thus, with a little historical research and a lot of practice, the “period instrument ensemble” became a world of its own.

Considering hearing Bach's Goldberg Variations on a grand piano is still an “arrangement” even if none of the notes are changed, there is also a lot of now-familiar Baroque music we have come to know through some kind of arrangement to better fit the modern instruments we have at hand.

Even if Vivaldi wrote a flute concerto and we hear it performed on a flute, Vivaldi wrote it for a wooden flute, not a silver one; and for that matter, rather than what is technically a “transverse” flute – with the instrument held the way we normally expect a modern flute to be held – it might have been written for a recorder (around 1700, the terms were interchangeable). So yes, that would affect the “sound” of the music, depending on which instrument is used.

But was this a major concern to composers back in The Day? Apparently not, because a trio sonata you might see played by two violins “and continuo” (we'll get to that in a minute) could also be played by two flutes (or recorders) or a combination of the two.

As for that term “continuo,” this is the standard Baroque catch-all term for the “accompaniment.” This normally consists of two aspects: two instruments, a single-line “melody” instrument like a cello which plays the bass-line of the accompaniment, and a chord-playing instrument like a harpsichord (the precursor of the piano) which fills in the harmony.

This is why – illogically – it takes four musicians to play a trio sonata: two instruments accompanied by The Continuo which consists of two instruments.

And if you're playing flutes instead of violins, you should use a bassoon instead of a cello in the continuo to match the woodwind sound. Also, if you're playing in a church, you could use an organ to play the harmony (probably not the big pipe-organ: they had little “portatif” (small and portable) organs for smaller sounds and venues). Or, hey, why not a lute? In the opera pit, they might use “all of the above” for various situations and combinations.

In fact, Bach's wonderful collection of Preludes and Fugues known as The Well-Tempered Clavier, usually heard played by pianists or harpsichordists these days, was originally composed for the Clavichord, a kind of small desk-top version of a keyboard instrument that could barely be heard across a room if somebody sneezed. Yet no one I know has ever complained that that Prelude & Fugue on the program was not played on a clavichord...

Basically, what exactly played the part was not crucial. The important thing was that it was played.

In fact, all I can say is, unless you're planning on pursuing a doctorate in Baroque Performance Practice, don't worry about it. Just sit back and enjoy the music – that is, really, why musicians play it and music-lovers listen to it. For all the technical details that can inflame an otherwise nerdy discussion of the finer points of historical accuracy and the reasons one may pursue a particular presentation of it, it all comes down to “does it succeed as music?”

(And let's not even get into ornamentation, but I digress...)

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These days when you go to a standard chamber recital or orchestra concert, you don't hear much actual Baroque music – a symphony orchestra might play an all-Baroque and -Classical concert but even then, while the orchestra is pared down from the 75-100 players we're used to with Beethoven or Mahler, it's still way more musicians than Bach or Handel would normally have expected.

A lot of this is the result of dedicated study, digging through dusty archives to find not only the music itself but accounts about how it was performed. Keep in mind that, until Mendelssohn conducted Bach's St. Matthew Passion in 1829 (only some 79 years after Bach's death), most concert-goers had never heard Bach's music (except the academically minded composers studying counterpoint who could track down a copy of The Well-Tempered Clavier). And that before 1939, there had probably not been an all-Vivaldi concert since Vivaldi died in 1741 (in 1952 there were 2 recordings of The Four Seasons; in 2011, one catalogue listed over 1,000).

And so, here comes Rebel.

the ensemble, Rebel (photo credit: Chris Fanning)

These confederates with a cause, standing up to decades of library dust and academic debate, take their name from a French Baroque composer named Jean-Féry Rebel. Hence, in the French manner, it is pronounced rrreh-BELL.

And after you hear them – you can probably tell by looking at some of their publicity photos – this is not your grandfather's “period instrument ensemble.”

You might catch a glimmer of their reasoning behind this choice by listening to a piece Rebel composed in 1737, his version of “The Creation” story set as a ballet. Considering Haydn's famous oratorio and its murky C minor prelude representing “Chaos,” imagine, if you will, this sound breaking over Paris some sixty years earlier:
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Chaos, indeed! Even just the opening few seconds will be enough to make you ask, not “how did this sound to listeners in 1737” but what the hell was their reaction to hearing that chord!?!

While some of the names on their program will be familiar to the general music-lover – Vivaldi, Corelli and Telemann – there are names on here that you may never have encountered before on a live concert program in Harrisburg (does that make it “new” music?). Even William Boyce, more familiar as a contemporary of Handel, is generally known only by his eight little “symphonies.” But Mancini (that's Francesco, not Henry), Biagio Marini, Pandolfi and Schmelzer are proof that there are other composers from the era than Bach and Handel – in fact, not only the generations before Bach and Handel but generations of composers who filled in the time between Monteverdi in 1600 and Bach's death in 1750.

I'm guessing that for many of us, this may be an experience of discovery, no matter how old the music is.

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Joined by Matthias Maute, one of the foremost performers of the recorder and the traverso or “transverse” flute, Rebel opens their program with a concerto by Antonio Vivaldi, a musician and teacher who conducted an orchestra of orphans in Venice and who was, in addition, a priest with uncharacteristically red hair (hence the nickname “The Red Priest” which had nothing to do with his political leanings).

Having gleaned through more YouTube videos than I would care to complain about trying to find a recording of the one on the program that fits the ensemble, here's a performance (uncredited) which will give you an idea of “one way” to perform Vivaldi but will not be exactly like the performance you'll hear Saturday night.
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More to the point, here is a performance by Matthias Maute playing the recorder in his own variations on themes by George Frederic Handel – his aria “Lascia ch'io pianga” from his opera Rinaldo and concluding with what can only be described as one of Handel's Greatest Hits, the keyboard piece known as “The Harmonious Blacksmith.” This was recorded this past July at an Early Music Society Recorder Workshop in San Francisco.
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And here are members of Rebel with Herr Maute playing one of the “orchestral” works of the era – with eight players – the third of the Op. 3 Concertos by George Frederic Handel:
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- Dick Strawser

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Market Square Concert’s 35th anniversary season begins on Saturday, October 1, at 8 pm at Market Square Church. Rebel with Recorder and Flute virtuoso, Matthias Maute, will offer an unforgettable journey through 17th and 18th century European music of country, court and chapel.

Tickets are $35, $30 for seniors, $5 for college students and free for school-age students with a $10 ticket available for one accompanying adult. For tickets, visit the website, call 717 214-ARTS or 717 221-9599. Remaining tickets will be available at the door.

Hailed by the New York Times as “Sophisticated and Beguiling” and praised by the Los Angeles Times for their “astonishingly vital music-making”, the New York-based Baroque ensemble REBEL has earned an impressive international reputation, enchanting diverse audiences by their unique style and their virtuosic, highly expressive and provocative approach to the Baroque and Classical repertoire.

REBEL was originally formed in The Netherlands in l99l. In the Fifth International Competition for Ensembles in Early Music, Utrecht 1991 (now the Van Wassenaer Competition) REBEL was awarded first prize. Since then the ensemble has performed at European venues such as the Konzerthaus (Vienna), La Chapelle Royale (Versailles), as well as Library of Congress, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art. In 2005 REBEL appeared in collaboration with Renée Fleming at Carnegie Hall to critical acclaim.

The ensemble has recorded for all the major European national radio networks and has been showcased in performance and interview on BBC’s Radio 3. In 1999 REBEL became the first and only period instrument ensemble to be awarded an artists’ residency at National Public Radio.

Matthias Maute has achieved international renown as one of the finest recorder and baroque flute players of his generation, and as a composer and director. His first prize win in the soloist category at the prestigious Early Music Competition in Bruges, Belgium in 1990 set the course for a diverse and distinguished career spanning over two decades. In December 2008 Mr. Maute made his Lincoln Center début at the Rose Theater in New York City as a featured guest with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Mr. Maute has made some twenty recordings on the Analekta, Vanguard Classics, Bella Musica, Dorian, Bridge and Atma Classique labels. Currently he is a professor at McGill University and at Université de Montréal.

The concert is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. William Murray. The season sponsor is Capital BlueCross. A resident company of Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, Market Square Concerts also receives support from the Cultural Enrichment Fund and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Complete information on Market Square Concerts’ 2016-17 season is available at the website