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A Unique Blend of Baroque and Contemporary

Friday January 23, 2004

Are we standing at the pinnacle of civilization, or tumbling from the broken guardrail? While there is a lot to endure in these burdensome times (traffic, mad cows, Republicans), it is an easy and available pleasure to graze through the treasure trove of history that has accumulated in the five centuries or so while we’ve been otherwise occupied. 

Members of the ensemble American Baroque play period instruments. Period instruments, like the shawm and the viola de gamba, are sometimes found in museums. But old instruments don’t ever seem to really die, they just move into the hands of specialists who love them all over again. The baroque flute, the baroque oboe and violin, the harpsichord—these instruments sing to us from an earlier era, their graininess and hushed subtlety a bit surprising, catching us unawares. 

If something was lost as flutes began to be cast from metal, as the violin was fashioned for greater carrying power, as the piano edged the harpsichord from the stage, it was not lost forever. When the musical experiments of the 20th century got underway, these quiet survivors of bygone days were dusted off. They found new enthusiasts. They were recorded, carried around the world on concert tours. And, after a few centuries of forgetfulness, composers began writing new music for them.  

I saw American Baroque perform in San Francisco in the late ‘90s, a collaboration with the Common Sense Composers Collective. The sound of these instruments playing music written by contemporary composers was revelatory. Now they’re at it again. 

This Saturday, in Berkeley, Emeryville-based American Baroque will balance a program of 18th century composers Marais and Rameau with works by composers considerably younger: Mark Mellits, Karl Stone, and Roy Whelden (who also plays voila de gamba in the ensemble) all have pieces on the program written in very recent years. 

Whelden’s piece is based on J.S. Bach’s once-lost Goldberg Canons, discovered, with attendant excitement, in France in 1974. These are 14 very short studies, which Whelden has arranged to form an extended suite. Gonzalo Ruiz, who plays oboe with the ensemble, compares what Whelden has done to a jeweler’s task in creating settings for a string of tiny, brilliant gems. 

What many of these pieces—old and new—have in common is the musical practice known as continuo playing. One of music history’s unsolved mysteries is the lapse of improvisatory practice, once integral to western classical music, now heard almost exclusively in the jazz tradition and in folk music. In the 1600s and 1700s, any credible harpsichordist needed to be able to improvise variations from a written bass line. 

Good early music players (and American Baroque’s Katherine Shao is certainly one) have revived this tradition, bringing some of the ad-lib back into the classical music world, where it once resided. The lutist and cellist need to be similarly skilled to play this music, making something cogent and fully realized out of a simple set of prescribed pitches. 

This improvised material is known as the continuo. It is what one hears when music is performed in the true baroque tradition, surrounding and accompanying the written material. As in jazz, performances of this kind are unique, involving a set of variations that will never be heard again.  

The baroque era has come to imply, for us, something a bit straitjacketed. J.S. Bach conjures up a fellow in a powdered wig. And, in truth, contemporary performance often seems to invite something more like polite attention than delirium. Perhaps this has to do, in part, with the loss of the improvisation. Improvisation of all kinds, when carried off well, always feels a bit like dancing on the edge of a precipice. Or it may be that in our time we need an electric guitar to make us feel we are being given an urgent message. 

Still and all, the descriptions handed down to us of the music from the period we now call baroque are surprising. A French treatise published in 1702 describes the playing of Arcangelo Corelli; “I never met with any man that suffered his passions to hurry him away so much whilst he was playing on the violin. His eyes will sometimes turn as red as fire; his countenance will be distorted; his eyeballs roll as in an agony; and he gives in so much to what he is doing that he doth not look like the same man.” Thomas Mace, in 1676, described the listener’s state-of-mind as hardly less extreme: “Fervently, and zealously captivated, we are drawn into raptures.” 

Many of the members or American Baroque are also principals in Philharmonia Baroque. ASCAP awarded the ensemble an award in 2000 for Adventurous Programming. They’ve toured far and wide. All this to say it’s a top-notch group, well worth a visit. You’ll not only be hearing fine musicians and fine music. You’ll be reminded, in the best way possible, what it was to hear music played when the world was just a wee bit younger. 

American Baroque performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 24 at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Berkeley, 2727 College Ave., and at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 25 at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Tickets are $22 for SFEMS members and seniors, $25 for non-members, $10 for students. 528-1725 or 


Clark Suprynowicz is a composer living in Oakland.