Last night Voices of Music gave their Saturday Night at the Movies concert at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. As I observed in my preview piece, the title referred to Voices of Music sharing the suite of high-definition video equipment, assembled and managed by co-Director David Tayler, with two guest ensembles. The motivation was to make this technological approach available to expanding the concert experience to two of Voices of Music’s “good neighbors.”
The first of the visiting groups to perform was the Alchemy Trio, formed only last year by three of the alumni of the American Bach Soloists Academy, Natalie Carducci on baroque violin, Gretchen Claassen on gamba, and Derek Tam on harpsichord. They performed two selections from the French Baroque, a chaconne by Jacques Morel and the second (in D major) of the four suites that François Couperin called “concerts royaux” (royal concerts). In the second half of the program, the visitors were the members of the New Esterházy Quartet, violinists Lisa Weiss and Kati Kyme (who alternate in taking first chair), violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen. True to their name, they performed music by Joseph Haydn, one quartet in its entirety (Hoboken III/34 in D major, the fourth of the six “sun” quartets published as Opus 20) and the variations movement from the Hoboken III/77 quartet, called “Emperor” because the theme for the variations is the anthem “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser” (God save the Emperor Francis).
Three members of the Voices of Music ensemble also performed. The program began with a selection of five English lute songs (the last of which was actually an arrangement of a song by Giulio Caccini arranged by John Dowland’s son, Robert). These were performed by soprano Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist accompanied by Tayler on archlute. The intermission was followed by Gabrielle Wunsch performing the G minor passacaglia that Heinrich Franz Biber composed to conclude his collection of single-movement “Rosary” sonatas for solo violin. The passacaglia is preceded by fifteen of these sonatas, each of which is a meditation on one of the Mysteries of the Rosary; but the passacaglia itself has no programmatic representation.
The entire evening was captured on high-definition video by Tayler’s production team. What will happen next has not yet been fully determined. However, one plan is to provide a full-screen projection of selections during next year’s Saturday Night at the Movies concert.
While such video documentation is clearly valuable, Tayler stressed, in brief opening remarks to the audience, that there is still no substitute for the actual performance experience. This was clearly apparent from all four sections of last night’s program, each of which was enlivened by its own sense of physical commitment. For my part I suspect I was most struck by the Alchemy Trio approach to the Morel chaconne. Regular readers know my pet conviction that “jamming” was integral to the performance long before the word itself began to be used in conjunction with jazz improvisation. Morel structured his chaconne in terms of give-and-take among three instruments; and, even if he had taken the trouble to write down all the notes, Alchemy performed the interchanges with the sort of spontaneity that could be found in the more creative originators of the bebop style.
That same sense of instrumental exchange was just as evident in the way in which Haydn chose to pass the theme of the “Emperor” anthem from one instrument to another as he unfolded his variations. This could not really be called “jamming,” since Haydn had clearly thought through all the details. On the other hand, there is a certain “illusion of spontaneity” in the opening measures of Hoboken III/34, in which a “theme” of a single note repeated four times keeps interrupting the efforts of the performers to get the “real music” of the quartet under way. This is one of Haydn’s wittier depictions of a somewhat ill-mannered conversational dynamic, making fun of an in-the-moment duel of words in the course of which very little of import actually gets said.
That in-the-moment sense of performance also brought vibrancy to the selection of lute songs. Here, again, the music may have been composed with considerable attention to detail from the composers; but there remained the matter of how the semantic import of the text was shaped by both voice and accompaniment. These were the most intimate selections on the program, requiring a closeness of attention that, as always, was facilitated by the wonderful acoustics of the St. Mark’s sanctuary. Both Rosquist and Tayler brought understanding to the selection of poems being set, not only through clarity of diction but also by interpreting the music (both vocal and instrumental) as the context that reinforces the underlying meaning.
Wunsch’s solo performance clearly did not involve any sense of exchange. On the other hand there was very much that sense of extended improvisation on a simple theme that had enlivened the Morel chaconne in the first half of the program. The outpouring of invention in Biber’s passacaglia can easily be associated with what I have called the “and another thing” approach to invention that can be found in the instrumental music of Johann Sebastian Bach (and would surface once again in the jazz world in the prolifically extended improvisations of John Coltrane). Wunsch approached her execution of Biber’s score with an almost jazzy spirit, making her performance as lively as any of the ensemble work on the rest of the program.