If It Ain't Baroque

Knoxville's early music ensemble warms up the holidays

Imagine a cold December's evening. Outside, a bleak mid-winter snow is falling. But inside, the room is warmed by a huge log burning in the fireplace and lit by candles in every nook. The rafters are hung with evergreens and holly berries. A table sags under the weight of seasonal food and drink. And as friends and neighbors greet each other with hugs and laughter, the sounds of lute, recorder, viol, and voices fill the air.

Yes, this is a fanciful dream of a mid-winter evening long ago, in a time that may or may not have even existed. But elements of those celebrations of old still exist, as does the music. Performance of this music—music ignored or forgotten as years went by—is kept alive by groups like the Knoxville Early Music Project, and their annual Christmas concert at the Laurel Theater.

Founded in 1991 by Thomas Tallant and two former members, KEMP is today an ensemble of musicians from different musical careers and backgrounds who are drawn together by a shared love of performing "early music"—music from the medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods—on authentic instruments. Performance of early music is a labor of love, and, for the most part, not a profitable one. Not surprisingly, KEMP's personnel has changed over the past 16 years as members moved on to other pursuits and were replaced. For this year's holiday concert, KEMP's roster of musicians will be Knoxville organist Ashley Burell on harpsichord, soprano Amy Porter, Gail Ann Schroeder on viola da gamba, Ann Stierli on viola da gamba and recorder, and Tallant on lute, theorbo, and baroque guitar. The group is also joined by soprano Maria Rist.

While the character of Baroque music is more familiar to contemporary listeners, music from the Renaissance era, and certainly from earlier medieval years, can seem quaint and odd, particularly when played on period instruments. Many of the period instruments used by KEMP are the relatives of instruments one might find in contemporary ensembles. The harpsichord, of course, is heard in modern performance. The viola da gamba, a cello-like instrument, is held between the legs and bowed, but has a softer, reedier sound than a cello. The lute is a plucked string instrument with a bowl-shaped body, very good for solo music and for accompanying a singer. The theorbo is a long-necked lute with a neck extension to hold long bass strings. The baroque guitar is an ancestor of the modern classical guitar, but it uses five pairs of double strings instead of six single strings. It is the combinations of these ancient instruments, and their specific tones and timbres, that define the period sound.

While some of the program selections in the Holiday concert are among the earliest versions of familiar tunes such as The Holly and the Ivy and What Child Is This, concertgoers will, for the most part, hear music that is delightfully unfamiliar. The program will also cover a wide historical range, from a 12th_century French chant Ave Maria, to a setting of Greensleeves and Yellow Lace.

A major work on the program will be Bonifazio Graziani's Venite, Pastores, a solo motet for voice and continuo (bass viol, harpsichord, and baroque guitar). The work is a longer, dramatic piece from the early Baroque period that places significant performance demands on the singer. The soloist will be Knoxville soprano Amy Porter, who is equally at home in opera and 20th-century music and is the director of vocal programs for Knoxville's Community School of the Arts.

Following the motet will be The Wexford Carol, one of the oldest Irish carols, which probably originated in the 12th-century. This melody may be familiar to some, thanks to a contemporary a cappella arrangement by English composer John Rutter. However, KEMP's arrangement will feature accompaniment on theorbo.

This concert will be chamber music in every sense of the word—music performed in an intimate setting by small groups of musicians for the up-close enjoyment of both the musicians and their listeners. And as a nod to the tradition of the mid-winter feasting and camaraderie of olden times, a reception of wassail and snacks will follow the concert at the Laurel Theatre. But don't expect the snow.