Once upon a time, when one of us (Elizabeth) was studying musicology in an unnamed northeastern graduate school, the musicologists had a virtual death grip on the performance practice of early music. So concerned were they that everything about a piece from instrumentation to ornamentation be perfectly authentic that either they refrained from playing it or raked over the coals anyone who dared. In its extreme the system worked something like this: the music of medieval troubadours was notated in a single staff with clear pitch designation but ambiguous rhythm and no accompaniment. Old recordings sported a lonely male singer intoning the poetry of courtly love more like liturgical chant than an invitation into an illicit relationship.
Fast forward, now, to the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild’s season opener of the Sights and Sounds on Sundays series in the North Carolina Museum of Art by Ensemble Vermillian (EV). EV’s mission is, in their own words, “… to explore the potential for color and texture possible in transcribing the virtuosic repertoire of the seventeenth and eighteenth century.” Note the language: “explore,” “potential,” “transcribing” – this joint venture between musicians from Davidson College and UC Berkeley has turned the stodgy old musicological dogmatism on its head with an approach to the repertoire analogous to jazz.
The concert by EV’s founding members, Frances Blaker (recorders) and Barbara Blaker Krumdieck (Baroque cello) plus Henry Lebedinsky (harpsichord) and Brent Wissick (viola da gamba), was informative, beautifully executed and delightfully eccentric. The Ensemble concentrated on works by unjustifiably neglected Italian composers of the early Baroque, Marco Uccellini (1603-60), Giovanni Battista Vitali (1632-92) and his son Tomaso Antonio (1663-1745), T. (?) Merula (c.1595-1665), Antonio Bononcini (1677-1726), Giovanni Battista Bassani (c. 1657-1716) and Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli (mid-17th century), all of whom composed primarily for the violin. You will note, however, that EV did not include a violinist on its roster. Not to worry. Making do with what they had, they simply transcribed the violin parts for recorders and cello! Blaker was particularly adept at transforming her instruments into a virtual fiddle – with a little vocal ornamentation in the brew, while Lebedinsky livened up those skeletal figured bass lines with what sounded like real improvisation. The Baroque cello as second fiddle, however, was not quite as successful; it tended to blend with the basso continuo rather than with the virtual violin, affecting the contrapuntal balance between the two principal instruments.
A member of the ensemble introduced each work from the stage, giving a brief bio of the composer, as well as information about the instruments and the transcription process. What they did not have time to get into was, for us, one of the most fascinating aspects of the program: the enormous structural variety of pieces all called “sonata” and the use of popular borrowed melodies, particularly as ground basses for chaconnes. The chaconne (or passacaglia or ground) is a variation form in which one voice, usually the bass, repeats a melodic and rhythmic pattern several measures in length, while the other voices weave decorative embellishments over it. Devotees of the more well known composers of the period would have recognized the ground basses from Claudio Monteverdi’s duet “Zefiro torna,” Pachelbel’s ubiquitous Canon, an extension of the ground in Dido’s lament “When I am laid in earth” by Henry Purcell and the famous “folia” tune – here used in sonatas by G. B. Vitali, Merula, Mealli, and T. A. Vitali respectively. Composers wove these hits into their own works, hoping the halo effect would help sell their publications.
Since during this period home music making, rather than formal concerts, formed the bulk of people’s exposure to new music, EV’s transcriptions reflected the manner in which musicians might have adapted a piece to the instrumental forces at hand. Creative realizations of the basso continuo and ornamentation of the melodic lines would all have been improvised, leaving only the faintest of musical footprints – largely traceable to contemporaneous treatises on how to compose for or play an instrument. There were also books on musical rhetoric, or how to imbue a piece with precise emotional punch.
Ensemble Vermillian’s concert ably filled a repertory gap in local concert fare. With a combination of scholarship, virtuosity and humor, EV performs in the spirit, rather than the letter of the musical law. We hope to hear more of them.