Making sense of the Baroque period of music today is no small task, for probably no other period of music has suffered as much at the hands of both history and contemporary marketers. Flowing from the strictures of the Renaissance, music of the 17th and early 18th centuries embraced advances in musical instrument construction and in playing technique, and reflected the evolving social convolutions of class society and changing world views. Music that was thought of as “wild” and “misshapen,” and a celebration of the bizarre, in the earlier years was tamed by period’s end into elegant refinements for society and functional vehicles for the church. Today’s willing misunderstandings of performance styles and the commercial focus on those works that have been rendered mind-numbingly uniform—Pachelbel’s Canon in D major or background music arrangements of Bach’s cantata chorale “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” for example—have done a huge disservice to the Baroque period’s vast catalog of intriguing music.
The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra made a case for Baroque diversity in Sunday afternoon’s chamber string ensemble concert, “Spring Baroque,” in the intimate acoustics of the Bijou Theatre—this despite the fact that a 20th-century concert-hall setting distances many of the works from their historical origins. Leading the list of seven works in terms of musical intrigue was the most irregular of them all: Heinrich Biber’s Battalia, a depiction in eight movements of the life of an army, from drunken revelry to the ensuing battle to lament for fallen soldiers. In the second movement, “The Dissolute Company with All Kinds of Humor,” each instrument plays its own individual melody which, in combination, is delightfully tipsy and cacophonous, and reminds one of the modern sensibilities of Charles Ives. Biber also called for using the players and their instruments in percussive ways—players stomp and tap, while the bass player places paper under the strings to achieve a drum effect.
At the other end of the spectrum, George Frideric Handel’s 12 Concerti Grossi Op. 6 are in many ways summations of the Baroque—music seething with underlying drama and interrupted by dance rhythms, yet written for entirely practical reasons. Handel wished to use them between the acts of his oratorios and also to publish them for immediate profit. Lucas Richman’s choice for this concert was a charming performance of the No. 10 in D minor from the group, a work quite reminiscent of Handel’s Italian operatic efforts.
The first half of the concert consisted of three small ensemble works from Goldberg, Bach, and Vivaldi, performed by members of the orchestra’s Principal Quartet (violinists Miroslav Hristov and Edward Pulgar, violist Kathryn Gawne, and cellist Andy Bryenton), along with excellent continuo from harpsichordist Carol Zinavage and double bassist Steve Benne.
J.S. Bach was represented in this group by the Sonata No. 3 in G minor for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, BWV 1029. The work was lovingly performed by Gawne and Zinavage—but although I am not necessarily a stickler for period-instrument accuracy, I found the timbre of Gawne’s modern viola to be a bit brittle for what one expects from the work.
Following the Bach was Vivaldi’s short Sinfonia in B minor “Al Santo Sepolcro.” The intrigue here was an opening Adagio molto that is eye-opening, thanks to some harmonically dissonant measures, not uncommon in Baroque sacred music to indicate the suffering of Jesus.
Because Baroque audiences expected diverse entertainments, incidental music in dramatic theater was the norm. Composer Henry Purcell wrote quite a bit for the theater, including an overture and interludes for a 1695 revival of Aphra Brehn’s Abdelazer (or “The Moor’s Revenge”). Purcell’s suite from the play is rich in musical theatrical suggestion, certainly an area in which Richman and the orchestra excel.