On April 10, Elon University’s Whitley Auditorium proved to be the ideal venue for the award winning Early Music group Chatham Baroque. The presence of a nearly full house assured that the reverberation due to all the hard surfaces was sufficiently tamed. The Pittsburgh-based ensemble was so well received that they sold out their six CD selections at intermission and – joyfully – had to bring out more for post concert sales. (Their fine Dorian recordings were sold at a reasonable $15.)

I first reviewed the Chatham Baroque when they appeared on the Early Music Series of the 2001 Piccolo Spoleto Festival (see our “Best Of”). On that occasion, I found their program of sonatas by Corelli, Handel, and Purcell, and their own dubious transcription of Bach’s Partita in A Minor, “light, enjoyable and very forgettable” – except for a stirring “La Folia” Variations by Vivaldi. At that time, the standards of the Triangle’s own well-rehearsed Ensemble Courant (long since moribund) were still fresh in my memory.

Chatham Baroque’s program for Elon featured “Baroque Instrumental Music of Spain and Latin America.” In the excellent program notes, reprinted from their CD notes, author Scott Pauley quotes Spanish musicologist José López-Carlo’s observation that “secular instrumental music in Spain during the seventeenth century constitutes one of the most sad and inexplicable gaps in all of our musical history.” There is virtually no surviving ensemble music from that period, while there is a sizeable repertory for solo guitar, harp and keyboard. The group sought to recreate such music by adapting “a variety of Spanish dances for their ensemble, usually two baroque violins, viola da gamba, theorbro, baroque guitar and their guests,” on this tour virtuoso percussionist Danny Mallon. One violinist was ill, so the Chatham regulars on hand were violinist Julie Andrijeski, gambist Patricia Halverson, and Scott Pauley on plucked instruments. During the course of the program, each explained the basic features of their instruments, and some pieces featured them in solos or duos in addition to a large number of characteristic dances, such as the jota or the fandango. Many of the basic dances were taken from Dance and Instrumental Diferencias in Spain During the 17th and Early 18th Centuries by Maurice Esses. Their compositional approach was “in keeping with the performance styles of the (period), which was improvisatory, both in varying the tune over repeating bass patterns and in choosing the instrument(ation).”

Nothing exhibited the freedoms of tune treatment and instrumentation better than the two versions of “Canarios,” by Gaspar Sanz (c.1699-1704), that came near the opening of the program and ended it. Lovers of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Fantasía para un gentihombre would have recognized the basic tune, which is a popular subject for composers for the guitar. The first performance began with the tune carefully articulated on the baroque guitar, joined in turn by the strings and simple percussion. Dynamics were varied, but other than a false stop worthy of Haydn, the basic tune was straightforward. The second version featured elaborate percussion shared by several players, including hand patting of the sides and top of the guitar and very elaborate treatment of the basic tune. An exception to the dominance of dance was the Chiacona of Antonio Bertali (c.1510-70). It was very much on the level of sonatas by Corelli or Vivaldi. It was a well-crafted standard baroque work but certainly not a major masterpiece. A highlight of the evening was Danny Mallon’s presentation of the full range of his percussion instruments – shakers (woven grass containers with rice or beans), rattles and frame drums. Among the latter were an Egyptian tambourine made with fish skin and five sets of jingles, and a modern Brazilian tambourine with many jingles. A small frame drum was made from the amniotic sack of a calf. On a large tar (such as an Irish band might use), he presented elaborate techniques of South Indian, North Indian and Persian styles along with wordless vocalizations in which the musical values added up to seven.