Overwhelmed by the splendour of it all – Latitude 37 in Wellington

STILE MODERNO – the genesis of the Baroque

Latitude 37

Julia Fredersdorff (baroque violin)

Laura Vaughan (viola da gamba/lirone)

Donald Nicolson (harpsichord)

Chamber Music New Zealand 2011

Ilott Theatre, Wellington

Monday 15th August 2011

Perhaps it was the fault of the snow that had been falling in Wellington for the first time in years – part of the extreme weather which had been causing all kinds of disruptions to musicians and their activities, with rehearsals having to be being cancelled and transport arrangements rethought. Even as Chamber Music CEO Euan Murdoch was introducing the concert (which was being broadcast nationally) the lights in the Ilott Theatre were flickering disconcertingly – of course the sounds of audience laughter had to be then explained to radio listeners, some of whom might have well been experiencing power surges and even failures of their own.

What about the snow, then, you may by now be thinking? Well, it must have transported a goodly proportion of my listening sensibilities to the state of “dreaming of a White Christmas”, because I simply couldn’t keep pace with the rapidity of change during the first half of Latitude 37’s richly-conceived and beautifully-played programme. I was following what I imagined was the order of listed items, and keeping up with things most satisfyingly (or so I thought) – when to my horror, after the three musicians had bowed and walked off the stage, up came the lights for the interval, leaving my expectations of more first-half music stranded somewhat at the Violin Sonata Seconda of Dario Castello, little more than halfway through the promised order!

When I looked around, nobody else in the audience seemed to be distressed or disconcerted or bewildered – everybody, it seemed, except for yours truly, was up with the play. Or were they? – I espied somebody I knew sitting a couple of rows away, somebody to whom I didn’t mind confessing a degree of appreciative ineptitude (I was hoping she wouldn’t spontaneously ejaculate the words, “Good heavens! – call yourself a critic?” or something similarly embarrassing). After furtively whispering my predicament to her, she reassured me by confessing that she, too, had gotten a bit lost with the order. I could have hugged her, but then that would have had to have been explained as well! – so I contented myself with a murmured “Well, thank goodness I’m not the only one….”

What the players had, in fact, done, was to run the endings and beginnings of different works so closely together as to make it difficult for the uninitiated ear to distinguish them from one another. As practically none of the music was familiar to me (though I thought I “knew” the baroque style sufficiently to be able to make distinctions between movements and, indeed, different works) I had gotten myself horribly lost, left behind in an ensnarement of lavishly-decorated and stunningly realized cornucopia of baroque splendor. I had taken notes on what I thought were individual works along the way, but upon reading them, realized that I had myself “run the movements together” and ascribed different strains of the music to the wrong works – and so on.

Why am I confessing up to this? Why would I want my incompetence as a listener, moreover, a self-appointed ANALYTICAL listener revealed to the world? Do I have some “hidden agenda” in mind, such as a kind of “did he fall or was he pushed” early retirement from “Middle C”? I must confess , it was, in retrospect, a delight of a concert from beginning to end, my confusion as to its exact provenance at any given time mattering not a whit to the spontaneous and incidental pleasure the musicians were generating around and about my receptive, if undiscriminating ears. Did I HAVE to know exactly where we were at any given point in order to appreciate the music’s and the performances’ qualities?

Sir Thomas Beecham was quoted once as saying that “The English may not like music, but they simply LOVE the noise it makes”.  After the experience of “losing my way” in both halves of this splendid-sounding concert of Baroque music, I’ve come to the conclusion that mine could well be a very Beechamesque appreciation of the same. Still, I figured that the experience of being “humbled” in a music appreciation sense, and confessing to it all in public is ultimately a valuable one for a critic. Apart from the “keeping me in my proper place”  process, it’s demonstrated at first hand to me what many people possibly feel when confronted with unfamiliar music at concerts in general. However much some concertgoers may “love” the sounds, they may simply not have the time for anything more than a cursory listen to music outside the live concert experience, so that the sounds do seem to run together for them, in a pleasing, but relatively undifferentiated way.

Enough of this self-flagellation – (my continuing in this vein might persuade some readers that I’m actually ENJOYING the experience!). So, what can I impart, in a critical sense, of what I heard in the Ilott Theatre that evening? This was one of two programs being toured by Latitude 37, as far as I was concerned, for me the more obscure of the two, as I knew not a single note of any of the composers’ music. The “other” concert featured music by Buxtehyde, Biber, JS Bach – to mention only one letter of the alphabet – and Pachelbel (yes, the Canon, but accompanied by its Gigue!), so Wellington was favored with the more esoteric-sounding program. Still, as I’d heard the group previously in concert, and knew just how inspiring and involving their music-making could be, I expected that, well-known or otherwise, the works featured would exert their own unique magic – and thus it proved.

On paper, what would one make of Canzon a due by somebody called Bartolome de Selma y Salverde, whose music began the concert? Apparently the composer’s only work ever published, it possessed an attractive initial melancholy before quickening in pulse, demonstrating plenty of flexibility and impulsive volatility (well, with a name like his, the composer was obviously a Spaniard). The players talked about the music – Laura Vaughan, who alternated between her viola da gamba and a smaller, more exotic-looking multi-stringed instrument called a sirone, talked about composers “freeing music from Renaissance polyphony, and expressing more individual emotion” as well as emphasizing the aspect of performer improvisation. This was a theme further developed by harpsichordist Donald Nicolson, who spoke about the phenomenon of much of the music we were to hear not actually having been written down – his own playing had a number of instances of seemingly-spontaneous impulses of melismatic energy, which invariably set the textures of the music fizzing and crackling. Violinist Julia Fredersdorff talked about the interchangeability of much Baroque music, citing Dario Castello’s Quarta Sonata a Due, Soprano e Trombon over Violetta as a work that was here transcribed for violin and bass viol, the different instruments bringing their own qualities to bear on the written (and improvised) notes.

Throughout the concert I was much taken by the music’s extraordinary freedom of expression within the prescribed boundaries of performance. The players were able to explore what seemed like vast potentialities of elaboration, but as individuals in dialogue with one another, not merely reproducing aimless, elaboration-for-its-own-sake activity. I could occasionally feel points of saturation being explored, which led me to imagine how such a style of playing and composing, if carried to extremes, could actually collapse under its own weight of elaboration – which, of course, was what happened to the Baroque style, eventually pushing succeeding composers in new, rather less over-laden directions.

I was perhaps more successful in “keeping up” with the item changes in this half of the concert, though finding that, towards the end, I couldn’t vouch for surety as to which item we’d reached (completing my humiliation). I like to think it was my survival instinct rather than a prurient streak in my makeup which, towards the end of the concert, quickened my interest in the music of one Tarquinio Merula, whose brief program bio-sketch had him “dismissed for indecency” from a position he held in Bergamo. His Ciaccona sounded anything but indecent, instead graceful and dance-like, featuring viola and violin playing in the same register to an interesting coloristic effect, the manoeuvres demonstrating great teamwork and beautifully-shared inflections of the music’s lines (mind you, I could have been describing either Claudio Merulo’s Toccata Terza or Maurizio Cazzati’s Balletto Quarto – but I hoped not).

Far more importantly than any self-consciously scholarly summation of the concert’s fine detail I might have pursued, I felt by the concert’s end as if I had been completely immersed in a whole era’s bevy of musical sounds and achieved a greater understanding of and love for the generous-cum-self-indulgent excesses of the baroque composer. No better advocates of a highly distinctive and inescapably grand period of music-making would I have wished for than Latitude 37, that evening.