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WI Baroque Ensemble plays Eaton Chapel

To a non-classically trained musician or historian, the Baroque Era may be somewhat of an enigma. Following the Renaissance, this period of diverse artistic expression in Europe began in the 17th century and continued into the 18th century. Operas, sonatas (compositions written for one or two instruments, typically with several movements), concertos (compositions written for one or two soloists, accompanied by an orchestra), and ballets became popular at this time. Famous Baroque artists include Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. Largely emphasized during this era were contrast (within dynamics, timbres, and tempos) and harmony. The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble, founded in 1990 and consisting of 8 members, played a 10-piece concert at Eaton Chapel on an icy Friday night. As I trudged through the snow towards the chapel, I had a pretty specific idea in mind of what I expected to hear. 

Thirteen audience members applauded as four musicians made their way down the aisle to the stage. One of the instruments was unfamiliar to me- identified in the program as a ‘traverso’, this instrument is essentially a uniquely-structured wooden flute. The bright tremolo of this woodwind instrument was accompanied by a baroque cello, harpsichord, and baroque violin. Each instrument spoke in turn to create a colorful dialogue. The fluttering of turning pages filled the air between movements as the musicians paused before continuing on to a faster paced movement.  

Recorder player Sigrun Paust joined Harpsichordist Max Yount and cellist Anton TenWolde for a four-movement Handel piece. The sound of the recorder made me feel as if I had been transported to some magical land, like the Shire. About thirty seconds into the second movement, Paust interrupted- “Sorry, nothing’s coming out,”. The musicians paused as she blew a firm breath of air into the recorder, producing a loud squeak. They looked to each other and promptly began the movement again from the beginning. This section was quicker, the plucked notes of the harpsichord coincided with the cellist’s fingers frantically running up and down the fingerboard, and there were a few moments in this piece when the three musicians struggled to stay together, but they listened to each other carefully to get back on the beat.

Mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sañudo walked past me towards the stage for the next piece. Wearing a black floral skirt, a ruffled leather jacket, transparent glasses, and a messy bun, her appearance under the great arch and indented stained glass windows of the chapel was enchanting. Her well-controlled voice was simultaneously light and rich, and her body swayed with the swells of melody. Singing in Italian, the stretched syllables of her words melted in the air. The cello and harpsichord were rhythmically united, until the harpsichord ended the piece with a beautifully rolled chord.

After a brief intermission, the flautist introduced the next piece with a short anecdote about the composer, Johann Joachim Quantz- he gave flute lessons to Frederick the Great in secret, as his father only wanted him to focus on being a powerful leader. During one lesson, Quantz was actually forced to hide in the closet so that Frederick’s father wouldn’t walk in on his flute lesson. The piece, stately in manner, made it feel as if we were in the presence of royalty.

As an ex-cellist, the beautiful cello duet by Giordani brought back fond memories. They simultaneously supported and contrasted each other, and I noticed something peculiar about the instruments that I hadn’t noticed before. Neither one had an end pin, the metal rod that sticks out of a modern cello to anchor it in the floor. Instead, the cellists rested the base of the instrument on their calves with their knees splayed out. They smiled at each other triumphantly as a ritardando brought the piece to an end. Their grins could not be contained as they stood and bowed for the applauding audience.

In a piece by Nicola Matteis, the cellist and violinist began a swelling harmony at the tip of their bows. The cellist alternated between pizzicato (plucking the strings), mimicking the harpsichord, and arco (bowing). The next piece, entitled “La Bergère” (“Shepherdess” in French) was introduced by the vocalist with another anecdote- a shepherdess was walking with her flock and her trusty sheepdog, trying to avoid the man who broke her heart. She laid down in a field of green to take a nap and asked the songbirds around her to quiet down so that her sleep will be undisturbed. As she began singing, Sañudo’s tone sounded worrisome but full of beauty. The fluttering violin and flute mimicked bird calls, allowing the listener to picture the shepherdess laying in the field of grass with her flock.

When the last piece was finished, all of the musicians came back to the stage to take a collective bow. Max Yount thanked the audience for coming, and concluded, “Now you can go back in the cold again,”. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, and I hope they visit Beloit again sometime soon.

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