Baroque concert transports its listeners to the past

With the tranquil sunshine of midday with shadows cast on the floor of the Lang Concert Hall, audiences were brought back to the world of Italy 400 years ago, accompanied by short and melodious pieces of music. On Monday afternoon, La Bernardinia Baroque Ensemble created a time machine through their concert with the theme “Viva Italia!” as part of the Midday Monday Concert Series, presented by the department of music and dance and the Elizabeth Pollard Fetter Chamber Music Program. This one-hour performance provided the audience with relaxed and humorous light music and indicated the variety of music by showing an extreme contrast of emotions.

La Bernardinia Baroque Ensemble, one of the recent additions to the early music scene of Philadelphia, took its name from a piece, “La Bernardinia,” by Italian composer Girolamo Frescobaldi, which was the first piece performed at the concert. The ensemble focuses on presenting chamber music from 1600-1750 and a performing repertory from European countries, including France, Germany, Italy and England.

This period of music “is less familiar to many people,” Michael Johns said, who is the associate in performance and director of the Elizabeth Pollard Fetter Chamber Music Program. Johns and the performers want audiences to hear the music of early modern Europe because, according to Johns, the music of that period “speaks to us and is just as communicative and emotional as music of our own time.”

Marcia Kravis, who plays harpsichord for the ensemble, believes it is important to understand music from the past and to have an idea of what the music of that time sounds like. “It helps you understand music of later times if you listen to music from earlier times. You have more understanding of where the music comes from,” Kravis said. She also considers looking at music history as similar to history as a whole, as it is similar to the way “everybody studies history so that you can understand the new world by looking at the past.” The harpsichord was a popular instrument in old times and is known for being very difficult to tune. It was very frequently used in Renaissance and Baroque music; however, from late 18th century, it gradually became less welcomed with the growing use of piano. Starting in the 20th century, it has been used in both older music performances as well as in modern compositions.

According to Donna Fournier, librarian at the Underhill Music Library who, in Monday’s concert, additionally played the viola da gamba, also named “viol” which in general has six strings and is tuned in fourths with a major third in the middle, the harpsichord is particularly sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. “When the harpsichord showed up today in the concert hall, it was chilly there. The harpsichord went from being in a comfortable temperature in Marcia’s home to coming here and being in a chilly temperature in the concert hall. So tuning the harpsichord is very challenging,” Fournier said.

Chamber music, a form of classical music, is typically written for a small group of instruments and performed by a small number of players in relatively private or small-size places with intimate atmosphere. Johns mentioned that performing chamber music is like speaking to one another through sounds and instruments. He said, “There’s a sense of conversation in chamber music. And it’s that kind of communication that I want people to see and hear.”

Clara Rottsolk, a special guest singer for the performance, also expressed her preference for small ensemble. Although she enjoys performing with “an army of an orchestra”, she still believes small ensemble are the most delightful. “You get individual voices played together. That makes me really happy.” The performers also hope to make the pieces interesting and humorous for the audience. The recorder, a musical instrument usually known as the fipple flute or internal duct flute, was performed by Rainer Beckmann in the concert. Fournier mentioned there was one piece when Beckmann added the sound of him humming the music into his original score. “It was really an interesting sound,” Fournier said.

Performing seven composers’ works, the ensemble depicted emotional changes. Fournier explained how the emotions differ in the three pieces they performed by Andrea Falconieri. The performers chose three pieces from a set of works by Falconieri, including the first piece “Corriente dicha La Cuella,” which is “a nice way to begin, a good introduction.”

The second piece “La Suave Melodia” is “slow and a little sad,” while the final piece “Il Spiritillo Brando” dramatically turns to joyful and delightful sound.

Robert Boell, a community member who is fond of Baroque music and who attended the concert, noticed the diversity of the music performed by the ensemble. “It [the performance] is enjoyable. It shows quite a variety of this series.” Meanwhile, he believes this concert is a well-timed addition to his day. “It’s nice that you can bring your lunch and enjoy the music.”

Jennifer Koch ’13, who also attended the concert, considered the performance “fabulous.”

“It is a unique opportunity to get to hear Baroque music played so wonderfully,” Koch said. “Donna Fournier sounded fabulous playing the viola da gamba, which was a special treat because the instrument is not nearly as highly valued in today’s music as it should be.”

The Midday Monday Concert Series is in its seventh year, according to Johns. “We invite the community, people who are older and retired and school children. The concert is like a gathering place. People in different disciplines and ages have a chance to get their battery recharged in the middle of the day,” Johns said.

The next Midday Concert will take place on April 2.

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