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MUSA presents a ‘programmatic program’ with some clever twists

MUSA founders Natalie Carducci, Esther Lam, Laura Gaynon, Emily Botel, Clio Tilton, Gretchen Claassen, and Addi Liu
MUSA founders Natalie Carducci, Esther Lam, Laura Gaynon, Emily Botel, Clio Tilton, Gretchen Claassen, and Addi Liu
by Matthew Washburn, from the MUSA Web site

Last October the Seventh Avenue Center for the Arts and Spirituality was launched at the Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church with the intention of using the second story of the church’s building as a unique environment for the co-mingling of art forms. With the current season coming to its end, last night gave me the first opportunity to visit this space for a performance entitled MUSA Presents: Martial Follies, featuring members of the MUSA Baroque Ensemble, violinists Emily Botel, Natalie Carducci, and Addi Liu (doubling on viola), violist Clio Tilton, cellist Laura Gaynon, and alternating harpsichordists Ester Lam and Derek Tam, all performing on period instruments. The concert was prepared as a preview event, since it will be performed again later this week as a result of MUSA having been selected to perform in the Young Performers Festival, held in conjunction with this year’s Berkeley Festival & Exhibition.

MUSA may well have a crack at providing the most unique event of the Festival. It is not often that an ensemble focused on historically informed performance of period instruments gives a world premiere by a living composer. (Strictly speaking, of course, the real world premiere took place last night.) The program concluded with a focus on Danny Clay, who completed his graduate studies in composition with Dan Becker at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music about a year ago and is one of the founders of the Guerilla Composers Guild.

Clay’s new piece, commissioned under MUSA’s Art Inspiring Art project with partial funding from the Zellerbach Family Foundation, is entitled “La Folia,” named after a Spanish harmonic progression that is now recognized as one of the earliest themes in the history of Western music. Since the middle of the seventeenth century, composers have been inventing and publishing variations on this theme, one of the earliest of whom was Jean-Baptiste Lully. MUSA performed Lully’s “Follies d’espagne,” composed in 1672, as an “overture” for Clay’s composition, familiarizing listeners with the original source.

This was probably a good idea, since Clay seems to have approached his task as one of “reverse variation,” where the theme is gradually disclosed as the variations progress. He thus began with a thick dissonant chord, which may well have resulted from playing all the individual notes of the “Folia” theme simultaneously. As the music advances, the listener encounters an increasing ability to discern both harmonic progression and melodic line, eventually encountering a “distilled simplicity” that reflects back on the seventeenth century. However, there still remains a “coda variation” of driving ostinato patterns representing the “new age” of repetitive structures, that term that Philip Glass has always preferred to minimalism but with a rhetoric that seemed closer in spirit to Michael Nyman.

To add one more mirror to this process of reflection between the seventeenth and 21st centuries, Lully’s variations were preceded by an earlier Clay composition, “Good Night,” which he composed in 2011. This is basically a lullaby (lullaby for Lully?) composed as a string quartet. However, Clay wanted it performed on period instruments in order to achieve sonorities evocative of a viol consort. The result is an instance of decidedly contemporary style endowed with a rhetoric that recalls some of the earliest music for bowed strings. Taken as a group, these three pieces provided an excellent showcase for both MUSA’s technical skills and their uniquely innovative approach to engaging those skills.

The preceding portion of the program was occupied more with the “martial” side of the title. Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s 1668 Die musikalische Fechtschul (the musical fencing school) is a six-movement suite intended to celebrate fencing as a courtly art that also cultivates military discipline. Four traditional dance-form movements are followed by an episodic “Fechtschul” movement, which may have been conceived as a musical representation of the standard fencing moves for attack and riposte. The suite then concludes with a restful pastorale movement, which apparently depicts a surgeon coming to treat the wounded.

A far lighter suite with a more satirical view of military exploits was Georg Philipp Telemann’s TWV 55:G10 Burlesque de Quichotte. Through an overture and seven movements that parallel episodes from Miguel de Cervantes’ novel, Telemann captures both the personalities and activities of both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, as well as the Don’s skinny horse Rocinante and Sancho’s mule. (The horse dances a minuet, for which the mule provides the trio.) Telemann seems to have had a love of satirical literature, since his TWV 40:108 suite for two violins is based on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

TWV 55:G10 was composed as an orchestral suite. Back in my student days, when orchestral music dominated chamber music, it was one of the few Telemann compositions to be played regularly on the radio. With their reduced resources MUSA performed it one instrument to a part, with Liu and Carducci on first and second violins, Tilton on viola, Gaynon on cello, and Lam providing harpsichord continuo. The recordings of my youth tended to go for a grander sound with lots of instruments. MUSA’s account, on the other hand, gave a clearer sense of Telemann’s intended irony, particularly where it was most appropriate, not only in the equine minuet but also in the Don’s exaggerated sighs for Dulcinea.

Both suites were preceded by an “entry march.” Lully wrote this march to depict the Turks in a “ballet of nations” he composed to be performed during the feast in the final act of Molière’s 1670 play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. This music was created purely for spectacle, rather than either dramatic irony or martial intimidation. In its original version it probably featured the necessary complement of Turkish percussion. In this case, however, it was performed simply with two violins (Carducci and Botel), two violas (Tilton and Liu), cello (Gaynon), and harpsichord (Lam), preparing audience ears for the sonorities that would characterize MUSA’s style for the remainder of the program, a style as comfortable with abstract forms as with programmatic depiction.