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An austere format for public concerts developed in the Classical period and became, if anything, more rigid in the late 19th century Romantic era. Audiences grew to expect black and white formal attire for performers who silently presented music to audiences who were equally silent. Even when some 20th century composers took off in totally new directions, their radical compositions were presented by performers who seldom deviated from the tuxedos and stuffiness that was expected in the late Romantic era.
Early music ensembles are more likely to dress in period costume. A few years ago, “Red Priest” performed in Asheville, performing while walking in (even the viol player) and adding a touch of theater to their skill as musicians. Piers Adams, leader of this four-member English consort, may be leading us into the 21st century. Other musicians who perform Renaissance and Baroque compositions on replicas of historic instruments feel free to meddle with the concert format in order to replicate the experience of hearing music from an era before public subscription concerts even existed. In Western North Carolina, we are blessed with our very own, very professional, early music consort, Musicke Antiqua. Beginning in 2003 with three musicians in Brevard, the group now includes sixteen members (twelve full members and four alternates), most of whom are Conservatory-trained performers on other instruments or University-trained music teachers.
Sunday’s performance was a simulation of a 17th century “stroll in the park” – a park next to St. Janskerke in Utrecht, Netherlands – and most appropriately was part of the Sunday concert series in St. Matthias Episcopal Church, a beautiful 19th century edifice on the National Register of Historic Places. In accordance with the theme, the concert began with solo recorder works by Jacob Van Eyck, a nobleman who in the 17th century gave recorder performances in that park. A bagpiper then marched down the center aisle, and took his seat to play an additional recorder. Other costumed musicians slowly arrived down the side aisles until a twelve-member ensemble was seated. Instruments included a consort of recorders (sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, bass and great bass), capped double reeds, cello, mandolin, psaltery, flageolet and percussion.
The concert included 18 pieces by 13 composers, with dates ranging from ca. 1550 to 1688. There was one ringer...a hurdy-gurdy piece for seven recorders composed in 1970. The most familiar composers were Josquin de Pres, Giovanni Gabrielli, Johann Schmelzer, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Loeillet de Gant.
From the first moment that we heard two alto recorders together (an “Adagio” movement by Loeillet de Gant) through to pieces for eight recorders, it was apparent that this group had mastered intonation. After a false start on the Palestrina “Sesto Tono,” music director Sharen Hafner (conducting from the great bass recorder) stopped and explained to the audience that she had forgotten that the ensemble needed to tune to the cello. One could not have asked for more satisfactory blend on instruments that do not easily produce accurate pitches. Before the 15th century Josquin de Pres piece “El Grillo” (for four capped double reeds and percussion), Ms. Hafner cautioned the audience that capped double reeds were treacherous instruments to play. The cautionary notice was not needed; the playing was impeccable.
We hear a great deal of music from the late Baroque period (Bach, Handel and Vivaldi). It is pleasant to know that a top quality local ensemble can now delight us in virtuoso performances of music from an earlier era.