Favorite Brandenburgs

“Subtle and brilliant at the same time, they (the Brandenburg concertos) are a microcosm of Baroque music, with an astonishingly vast sample of that era’s emotional universe.” — Ted Libbey

A big thank you to the over 800 people who joined us over the weekend to hear J.S. Bach’s six Brandenburg concertos. I can’t think of a better way to conclude our 2017-18 season!

At the Sunday concert we took an informal poll via post-it notes in the lobby for people’s favorite Brandenburg concerto. The winner in this particular vote was Concerto #4, followed closely by #3 and then #5. The final three — but still getting solid support — were #2, #6 and #1. I especially liked this audience member’s response: “My favorite Brandenburg is whichever one I heard most recently: bright trumpet notes; mellow cello and viola; marathon harpsichord part. All great!”

If you want to add your vote, email me at artisticdir@bcocolorado.org. Let me know what your favorite Brandenburg is, and (more importantly) why!

It was an epic week for our BCOC musicians and guests. We leave Bach for a while, knowing we will be returning to him before too long.

Binge Listening

If you can binge-watch your favorite TV show (mine’s “The Crown”), is it possible to “binge-listen” to the Brandenburg Concertos?

Some friends have told me their favorite way to experience Bach’s masterful collection is to listen to them all at once, whether on their favorite recording or live. I agree! Live performances of all six concertos (especially on period instruments) are few and far between, and we can’t wait to provide that opportunity for listeners this weekend.

The BCOC is primarily a string ensemble, but we are always thrilled to invite period wind players to join us. (They are like our favorite cousins that we get to see once a year!) Joining us for the Brandenburgs are several musicians that have played with us often over the last several years, including Kathryn Montoya and MaryAnn Shore (oboes), Todd Williams (horn), and Keith Collins (bassoon). Also returning are flutist Tamara Meredith and recorderists Linda Lunbeck and Michael Lightner, all three of whom have played with us since our first season.

Joining us for the first time are horn player Linda Dempf for Concerto #1 and trumpeter  Josh Cohen on Concerto #2 (a piece that Josh performs frequently throughout North America). Joining Todd on horn, these superb specialists will display their amazing talents on natural brass instruments!

Since its beginning the BCOC has been committed to nurturing and highlighting young talent in the early music field. This week we expand that focus with our new Young Artist Spotlight. We are delighted to welcome Stephen Gamboa-Diaz to perform the harpsichord solo in Concerto #5 and to share the continuo duties with me for these concerts. Stephen is originally from Oxnard, California, and now lives in Connecticut after recently receiving his Artist Diploma from Yale University.

Thursday’s performance at Broomfield Auditorium will feature four of the Brandenburg Concertos (#1, 3, 4 and 5); the slightly reduced program will allow us to provide concert commentary, a demonstration of some of the instruments, and a short introduction to Baroque improvisation (using the “slow movement” of the Concerto #3 as a departure).

The remaining performances — Friday evening in Highlands Ranch, Saturday evening in Cherry Hills Village, and Sunday afternoon in downtown Denver — will each include all six Brandenburg Concertos in one program, with a minimum of talking and a maximum of music-making. Definitely a binge listening experience!

I look forward to seeing you this weekend.

Brandenburgs

A few years ago musicians from the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado came together to brainstorm our ideas and dreams for the next 10 years. One of the ideas that was especially compelling was to perform all six of the Brandenburg Concertos on one program. Doing even one of them on a concert program is always a joy for us. In the words of our concertmaster Cynthia Miller Freivogel, “Every time we start a rehearsal with a Brandenburg everyone is immediately in a good mood – even after sitting in traffic on 36 or I-25. I can’t count the number of times I’ve started a rehearsal with one of these pieces and had someone say. ‘Now, that certainly is a nice way to start the morning!’”

That is why there is a particular excitement in the air as we prepare for our Complete Brandenburgs concerts and send emails between us to discuss tempos, performance notes, and interpretation ideas.

So what makes the Brandenburgs so special to perform? For me at least, it has to do with virtuosity… in a multi-layered sense of that term.  The first layer is the compositional virtuosity of Bach himself, his seemingly limitless ingenuity and his daring instrumental combinations that somehow still sound new. Then there are the many opportunities for solo virtuosity: the amazing feats of the natural horn and trumpet players in the first and second concertos, the dazzling violin passages in the fourth, and the astonishing harpsichord fantasia in the fifth are just a few examples. The final layer is a kind of shared virtuosity of the entire ensemble, along with the subtle, delightful interplay between the solo groups and the full orchestra.

And this makes me think of what I treasure the most about the opportunity to play all the Brandenburg concertos – collegiality. These concertos evoke the best in our collaborative spirit of making chamber music together. Bach gives us the opportunity to work and play together in new ways, and makes us appreciate each other more deeply.

So, in the spirit of virtuosity and collegiality, we all are very excited to bring you the Brandenburg Concertos on May 17-20!

Off Road

Thanks to all who joined us for Dessert and D’Amore last Sunday, with Matt Dane and Ann Marie Morgan as featured artists. It was a great opportunity to shine the spotlight on the viola d’amore, an exotic instrument that has its own alluring sound, with a fascinating if somewhat opaque background.  On a personal level, it was an amazing experience for me to have a chance to play Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (composed in 1978, and an example of the composer’s mystic minimalism) on viola d’amore and harpsichord. It may be the first time this exquisite piece has ever been played on that combination of instruments!

This program was part of our Baroque Out of Bounds series, which allows us to explore programming off the beaten path. There are lots of fascinating “off roads” within the Baroque repertoire itself, but we go even further by exploring new compositions for old instruments and finding intersections with art forms very different from our own. The series is also a way to replicate that special, intimate “house concert experience” in a public space.

Stay tuned for more Baroque Out of Bounds events – we have two planned for next season that we think you will enjoy!

Dessert and D’Amore

For our next Baroque Out of Bounds Learning Lab, I am delighted to be joined by two wonderful musicians, Matthew Dane and Ann Marie Morgan, that have been featured often over the years on BCOC concert seasons. Our April 8 program focuses on the sensual sound of the viola d’amore!

On his website, Matt talks about what attracted him to the viola d’amore, and how he came to own the two instruments he will play on our Learning Lab program:

“The viola d’amore is an instrument that long fascinated me for its mysterious but persistent history and its sweet, uniquely resonant tone. Four years ago I finally had the opportunity to borrow an instrument for two months and was hooked. In 2013 I commissioned well-known luthier Martin Biller to build one, which arrived at the end of that year. What a thrill to get to know it!

“In the summer of 2017 I was fortunate to acquire another instrument: a J. U. Eberle built in Prague in 1731. It is very different from my Biller – shorter string length, thinner neck, smaller distance between the strings, and steeper curve of the bridge. The sound is altogether different as well: radiant and darkly luminous, with lots of flexibility in the lower register.”

Matt has assembled an eclectic and fascinating program that includes both Baroque and modern pieces, including a suite by Conor Abbott Brown. (Conor’s commissioned work for BCOC, Down from the Verge of Heaven, was premiered in our recent program The Muse Project.)

As with all our Baroque Out of Bounds events, we will include some time for questions and informal conversation with the musicians. And to top it all off, some favorite desserts made by BCOC fans and musicians to complement the sweet sound of the period instruments!

Program:
Christian Petzold, Partita in F major
Conor Abbott Brown, Suite for solo viola d’amore (2017)
Arvo Pärt , Spiegel im Spiegel (1978)
Attilio Ariosti, Lesson No. 4 for viola d’amore and basso

Musing

Our collaboration on The Muse Project included five original poems and stories written especially for the occasion by five exceptional writers from Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I found these pieces astonishing in their range and power!  (We plan to add copies of these poems and stories to our website soon.) The writings explored the concept of muse and memory in various ways, and all of them had an immediacy and relevance that made me feel that myth and meaning are always present in everyday life.

I know that most of the writers (if not all) listened intently to the musical piece that their writing was paired with before beginning their writing. I am intrigued by this process of working across art forms for inspiration, with the aim of creating of something new and perhaps surprising.

For those who attended a performance of The Muse Project (and those who weren’t able to), what are your thoughts about collaborations like this? As an audience member, it’s sometimes hard to know what to expect coming into a collaborative event. Is that a positive factor… or not so positive? What role does surprise play (for good or bad)? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Collaborate and Create

I believe that Colorado’s art scene is so vibrant and innovative partly because of an openness to creative collaborations and their possibilities. I also believe the music that the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado plays is transformed with entirely new dimensions and insights when we partner with artists engaged in art forms that are different from our own. In past seasons, our collaborations with choreographers, dancers, puppet artists, and writers have been richly rewarding and revelatory.

With these beliefs in mind, I am thrilled to be partnering with Lighthouse Writers Workshop and Stories on Stage for The Muse Project. These two outstanding organizations join the BCOC this weekend to create a performance that combines beautiful Baroque music, original work by five of Denver’s best writers, and the power of storytelling.

Our theme focuses on the muses – both ancient and modern – who ignite our imagination. And fittingly, the program will include new five new poems and stories created just for this occasion, as well as a new musical work composed for our ensemble. The creation of new art is one of the joys of collaboration!

Of course, at the heart of our program is the timeless and inspiring music of Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Geminiani, O’Carolan, Eccles, and Fischer. I hope you will join us for one of three performances this weekend!

Frank Nowell

 

A New Work for Baroque Ensemble

Our upcoming concerts (The Muse Project) feature the world premiere of a new composition by Colorado composer Conor Abbott Brown. I’m very excited to play this new 10-minute work composed especially for the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado!

I asked Conor what it’s like to compose new music for a Baroque ensemble. Here is an excerpt from our interview.

Frank Nowell: What do you find “Baroque” in this new composition?

Conor Abbott Brown: There is a propulsive and cyclical feel to a lot of my favorite Baroque music that I drew on for inspiration while writing this piece. I also rhythmically reference the Baroque dance form known as the Siciliana. And I’m always excited by the ornamentation of Baroque music – as a listener, I am aesthetically aligned with the asymmetry and “mystery” of this ornamentation practice (which, sadly, much of which was lost of “straight-jacketed” later in Western music.)

What do you find very different from “Baroque?”

I use scales/modes in this piece that are quite removed from what Baroque composers used.

Is this the first time you have composed for Baroque period instruments? What was it like?

This is the second time – last year I wrote a piece for solo viola d’amore. I approach writing for period instruments just as I would writing for “modern” ones, which is to try to align what is idiomatic on an instrument with what is exciting for me as a composer during the composition process.

What would you like audiences to know about your piece? What should they listen for?

I really had fun with unequal temperament while writing this piece. Temperament describes how instruments are tuned. In the Baroque era, unlike today, there was no standardized temperament, and the distance between intervals was not the same in every key. The implications of this as a composer are that the ratios between scale degrees… can vary dramatically depending on what key you are in. I take advantage of this in Down from the Verge of Heaven by rotating the piece through a sequence that takes it into some very distant keys. In the equal temperament that most contemporary Western musicians play in, this wouldn’t really be a big deal… But in an unequal temperament, as the pattern rotates, we start to hear some strange and mind-bending new intervals!

The Muse Project

What inspires artists to create something new and beautiful in the world?

That question was the genesis of The Muse Project, a collaborative performance between the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado, Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and Stories on Stage.

The roots were planted a few years ago when BCOC and Lighthouse presented “Shape and Form,” a program blending the music of Bach with original poems and stories by Lighthouse faculty members. Five musicians and six writers participated in this extraordinary brew, and the resulting performance at the Lighthouse Grotto created quite a buzz. We knew that this was just the beginning of a collaborative journey!

Lighthouse’s director Michael Henry and I began thinking about our next project, and it  became clear that we should invite Stories on Stage to join us on the adventure. This wonderful Colorado organization brings stories to life with great actors. This was a perfect fit, and our three organizations began the brainstorming for what we called The Muse Project.

In ancient times, the muses were goddesses who presided on Mount Parnassus over the various arts. Baroque music often honored or depicted the muses, and poets and story-tellers throughout the centuries call on the muses to speak through their stories. Today, the “muse” can be a person (perhaps a friend, mentor, or love interest) who inspires someone to pursue their art.

Our blended performance will feature an eclectic mix of Baroque music, plus Conor Abbott Brown’s new composition Down From the Verge of Heaven, created especially for this program. Original poems and stories by five superb writers (all faculty members at Lighthouse) will be performed by actors Anthony Powell and Mare Trevathan from Stories on Stage. Readings will mostly alternate in dialogue with the musical selections, but in some cases will be simultaneously performed with the music.

Now, back to that question: What inspires artists to create something new and beautiful in the world?
________________

The Muse Project
February 23-25 (three performances)

Writers: Michael J. Henry, J. Diego Frey, Assetou Xango, Joy Roulier, Sawyer, Jennifer Itell
Actors: Anthony Powell, Mare Trevathan
Musicians: Martin Davids and Stacey Brady, violins; Emily Bowman, viola; Lara Turner, cello; Mark Elliot Bergman, bass;  Frank Nowell, harpsichord; Daniel Zuluaga, guitar and theorbo; Linda Lunbeck, recorder

Musical Selections:
Henry Eccles, Fantasia in C major for solo violin
J.S. Bach, Sonata No. 2 for Solo Violin, BWV 1003: Andante (arr. by Martin Davids)
Georg Philipp Telemann, Overture in G minor from La Changeante, TWV 55:g2
Telemann, Fantasia for Solo Recorder in C major, TWV 40:2
Johann Fischer, Passacaglia (Urania, Muse of Astronomy)
arranged by Frank Nowell and Alexander Vittal
Fischer, Tastada (Terpsichore, Muse of the Dance)
George Frideric Handel, Passacaille and Gigue from Terpsichore
Turlough O’Carolan, Irish Air from The Hibernian Muse
Francesco Geminiani, Concerto in G minor after Corelli op 5 no. 3: Adagio/Allegro
Conor Abbott Brown, Down from the Verge of Heaven
Antonio Vivaldi, La Folia, RV63

Arcangelo’s Circle, part 2

A big thank you to all who attended the Baroque Chamber Orchestra’s performances to begin the new year!

After two performances at the Antonia Brico Stage and Bethany Lutheran Church, we moved over to the King Center for three intensive days of studio recordings sessions, in quest of capturing the beautiful music of Corelli and his followers in our third CD recording. To quote one of our musicians, Sandy Miller, “the energy in the recording studio was both intense and joyful, demanding and transcendent.”

Our recordings are an important complement to our live music-making. They are a great opportunity to capture “snapshots in sound” of our ensemble at this point in our story, and to share our own unique take on these exceptional pieces with a wider audience… in Colorado and beyond.

During the week the orchestra was together, I kept thinking about the ways that music is passed on between generations. The violinist Geminiani paid tribute to his teacher Corelli by arranging his opus-5 sonatas, and passed on the tradition to his students, thus expanding “Arcangelo’s circle.”

Today, 300 years later, it’s not really that different. As musicians we often feel indebted to a private teacher or mentor who inspired us. And we hope to pass on what we learned to our own students in turn. Even with all the amazing technology at our fingertips, it’s still about the very human process of passing on an important tradition through mentoring and inspiration.