Attentive area music lovers packed the acoustically ideal Gray Auditorium inside the new Old Salem Visitors Center in Winston-Salem for an imaginative and a wide-ranging program that explored the use of improvisation in early Italian Baroque Music. The chronological range was from a song by Jacob Clemens non Papa (ca. 1510-ca. 1555) to another by Giovanni Antonio Bertoli (1598-ca. 1645).

The guest ensemble, The Harmonious Blacksmith, consists of harpsichordist Joseph Gascho, violinist Ingrid Matthews, cellist Nika Zlataric, soprano Ah Hong, with Justin Godoy on a variety of recorders, and John Lenti, plucking and strumming a baroque guitar, a lute, and a theorbo. The group’s name comes from the nickname for the air with variations from the Fifth Suite for harpsichord by Georg Friedrich Handel. Matthews is the daughter of Clifton Matthews, the distinguished long-time member of the piano faculty of the North Carolina School of the Arts. Many Magnolia Baroque Festival artists are NCSA alumni.

Joseph Gascho’s succinct program notes covered the evolution of improvisation from early, skeletal scores of the fifteenth century through “completely composed forms” of the mid 17th century. Instructional books were published intending to guide amateurs on how to improvise “diminutions — ornaments that embellish and quicken the motion from one note to another.” Use of well-known madrigal or chanson melodies made it easier for listeners to appreciate the performers’ artistry.

The basic principles of improvisation were demonstrated in the ensemble’s opening selection, “Frais et Gailliard” (Fresh and Confident) based on a piece by Jacob Clemens non Papa. The instrumentalists accompanied soprano Ah Hong as she sang a straightforward version of this R-rated ditty about a lad and a maid and wandering hands in search of love or something. After she finished, her accompanists proceeded to play ever-more complicated variations upon the songs’ melodies and bass.

Gascho said “Susanne ung jour” (Susanna, one day) was a big hit for the great Orlando de Lassus (ca. 1532-1594). It is based on the story of Susanna and the Elders contained in the Book of Daniel in the Catholic Bible. After Hong sang the solo version of what was originally a five-voice madrigal, its musical strands were given elaborate variations by a recorder, theorbo, and cello.

A favorite subject for elaboration is a repeating bass line, such as those found in the bergamasca, the chaconne, or the folia. The bergamasca tune was probably based on a folksong or folkdance. Its name suggests an origin in the district of Bergamo in northern Italy. Harmonious Blacksmith turned in a winning improvisation on this lovely pattern. Aspects of the tune were carried over in the catchy “Sentirete una canzonetta” (Listen to a fine song) by Tarquinio Merula (ca. 1594-1665). The elaborations of the repeat of the line “Ch’ogn’hor nel cor mi tormenta e fa” (Who constantly torments my heart) were captivating. This selection was encored after prolonged curtain calls for the musicians at the concert’s end.

The “Se l’aura spira tutta vezzoa” (If the breezes blow ever charming) of Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1608) served to show improvisation based on folia. The folia seems to have originated as a folkdance in 15th century Portugal. In a 1611 source, Sebastián de Cocarrubias called it “very noisy” and explained the name meant “mad or empty-headed” because “the dance was so fast and noisy that the dancers seemed out of their minds.”

The program ended with “Quel sguardo sdegnosetto” (That glance of disdain) by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). As throughout the vocal selections, Ah Hong’s even and warm voice had an almost instrumental flexibility and purity. This song’s pattern was that of a chaconne. Gascho quipped the melodic lines of these late works are pretty well set but that he and Lenti, on harpsichord and lute, were free to play around with the base. He said the ensemble tried to never pre-plan their improvisations but made them up in the heat of the movement. This fascinating concert will long linger in the memories of those lucky enough to have shared it!