Music House host Dr. John O'Brien is known for showcasing unique performers on his house concert series, and he certainly did not disappoint this evening. Attendees had the opportunity to hear three accomplished performers play rare repertoire on rare instruments. The performers were UCLA early music professors Niccolo Seligmann and Ryan Koons, and O'Brien. All but two pieces were by a collection of lesser-known Swedish Johan(n)s – Johan Agrell, Olov Johansson, Johann Munter, and Johan Helmich Roman – and one of the remaining pieces was by perhaps the best known German Johann – Johann Sebastian Bach. The rare instruments were viola da gamba and nyckelharpa. (Two additional instruments were part of the mix – harpsichord and violin – but couldn't be considered rare.)
The title of the program, Gallant and Gutsy in Baroque Sweden, was an apropos one for a program designed to contrast the entrenched contrapuntal church style and the emerging galant, or Italian theater, style of the late 18th century. "Gutsy" certainly referred to the courage needed by the performers to successfully maneuver this ornate Baroque music, which they did with no problem.
The concert opened with Bach's Sonata BWV 1029 in G minor for viola da gamba. Today, this piece is actually performed quite often on the cello, but only rarely on the viola da gamba. This was the perfect first piece because it included movements written in both the contrapuntal church style and the galant style. Seligmann and O'Brien dashed off the rapid contrapuntal movements with precision and verve, and the galant movement with grace.
The program offered two flute sonatas by Johan Roman (1694-1758). The first was Sonata No. 12 in D, and was played entirely by Koons on a violin restored by his father. Although Koons did not display Seligmann's level of precision with rapid passages, he still played beautifully. The second Roman sonata, Sonata No. 10 in E minor, consisted of five movements, with three played on the viola da gamba by Seligmann and two on the nyckelharpa by Koons. The nyckelharpa is a traditional Swedish musical instrument believed to date to the 14th century. Nyckelharpa literally means "keyed harp," but looks, and is bowed, like a violin. However, unlike a violin, pitch is varied by the use of a small row of keys located under the strings along the neck of the instrument. The result is a strangely-amplified sound similar to that of the hurdy-gurdy.
Perhaps the best-received piece of the evening was the entirely galant Sonata in A by Johan Agrell (1701-1765). Though originally for violin and obbligato keyboard, the violin was replaced by the viola da gamba for this concert. The piece, which was indeed gallant and performed with elegance and characteristic precision by Seligmann and O'Brien, was followed by an enthusiastic response on the part of the listeners.
Seligmann and Koons also charmed the audience with folk-style pieces of Swedish origin. Two were based on traditional Swedish tunes, and the final piece of the program was Seligmann's nyckelharpa and da gamba arrangement of a piece by Swedish nyckelharpa player Olov Johansson (1966- ). The combination of the two instruments – the drone of the nyckelharpa and the filigree of the da gamba – made for a layered effect that was simultaneously ancient and relevant, primal and refined, gutsy and gallant.