by Kristina Powers
Until the last decade or so, becoming involved in the historically-informed performance practice (HIPP) movement – which involves performing on instruments of a composer’s historical period – was not so “hip.” Although the movement had its beginnings in the early 20th century, it was often scoffed as an inferior musical niche for musicians who could not “make it” on a modern instrument and were hence attempting to find a niche in which they could “make it.” However, stereotypes and suspicions are steadily disappearing, with more and more “period instrument” ensembles and solo performers appearing on today’s classical music scene.
The concert I attended was the second of four major concerts in the ensemble’s “Angels and Demons”-themed season. Entitled “Charlie’s Angels: Music in the Court of King Charles II”, the concert revolved around music in the court of England’s King Charles II, the 17-century British monarch known for such fascinating trivia as his notoriously jealous (and murderous) mistress Moll Davis and his deathbed conversion to Catholicism. To my utmost surprise and delight, the concert opened with Purcell’s popular and haunting “Chacony in G Minor”, a perennial listening favorite of mine. Immediately, I was drawn in by the less abrasive and elegant sound of the period strings and harpsichord. While they had sounded enchanting enough on a recording, they sounded even more enchanting in person. I watched, mesmerized, as the silvery sound floated through the auditorium, closely observing the movements of the players’ bows. Yet this enchanting opening was only the beginning of a totally delightful romp through English Baroque repertoire. Purcell continued to dominate the majority of the program, yet lesser-known and equally delightful works by such obscure composers as Matthew Locke, Louis Grabu, and John Blow provided a welcome and even more attention-getting variety to the program. Even though I had never heard any of the selections save for the first number, I heartily enjoyed them all and was totally enraptured for the entire performance, thoroughly disappointed when it had all concluded.
Yet solely listening to the music was not enough for me to accurately judge the quality of both the ensemble and this light-hearted concert. Being seriously involved in the study of historical performance practice, I also took care to pay attention to the stylistic and technical aspects of the performance. As I had expected when I initially learned about the ensemble and its prestige, the performance was “right on” with regards to historical accuracy. Besides the obvious usage of Baroque instruments and bows, the ensemble topped off the authenticity aspect of the performance by masterfully executing each number with historically informed technique. For example, each player articulated with the inmost subtlety and accuracy to the point I could always hear the inegal – or usage of unequal notes – perpetually throughout the performance. Baroque bowing was used at all times, and dance rhythms were executed so masterfully that I literally wanted to get up and dance. The ensemble also took utmost care to accurately represent the “passion” – or corresponding mood – of each piece, invoking countless emotions from joy to melancholy within my soul. So much for my recorder and voice teachers constantly reminding me to heed the “Doctrine of the Affections” when playing Baroque music!
For the finishing touches to this delightful and historically accurate concert, the performers themselves were highly dynamic. Director/Baroque violinist Gary Clarke demonstrated an overwhelming amount of energy in conducting the group. Reminiscent of Il Giardino Armonico director Giovanni Antonini, Clarke was never static during the performance, always gesturing with wide, dramatic hand/arm motions, taking deep breaths, and energetically stomping his feet frequently during intense musical moments. Furthermore, Clarke genuinely ensured that this concert’s atmosphere would never be “stuffy” in any way, urging the audience to dance if they felt like it and humorously interjecting trivia/story narratives between pieces. Of special note was Clarke’s charming narration of the story of William Lawes’ Suite from “Comus”, which provoked many giggles and chuckles from the audience. In turn, all the members of the ensemble demonstrated a restrained yet present energy when executing all their numbers. Mesmerized by the gorgeous music and preoccupied with seeking out historically informed technique, I must say that I could not possibly pick out any specific players for noteworthy mention; all were sparkling! In the end, I walked away not only with a greater appreciation for historically informed performance and more in-depth knowledge of both its repertoire and technical execution, but I also (and more potently) gained an appreciation for my current musical passion and studies in the field. Well, done, Baroque Band!