Aspects of Joy

Thank to all who joined us for our chamber music concert in Highlands Ranch last Sunday afternoon, with music reflecting different aspects of joy by Handel, Bach, and Telemann. I received a number of comments from audience members who enjoyed the suite of French Noels that concluded the program. I love the music in this tradition – the combination of simple folk tunes and the more elaborate variations is enticing. I plan to continue arranging Noels as an ongoing project for the orchestra, trying different instrumental combinations and exploring improvisational aspects as well! 

I am interested in learning what our audiences would like to hear this time of year from the BCOC. Familiar or new, vocal or instrumental? Are you hoping to hear Baroque music composed specifically for Christmas (there’s a lot of it!) , or simply timeless Baroque music that evokes joy and peace? I’d like to hear your thoughts and suggestions; please respond to this post or send me an email at artisticdir@bcocolorado.org.

The Joy of Noel

One of the intriguing aspects of Baroque music for me is the many intersections between vernacular traditions and the music of the court and church. The French Noel is a good example. The word Noel was used as a cry of joy, especially at Christmas, but the term also refers to a popular song with tunes joining sacred texts with secular music and dance. These songs were very popular in France throughout the Renaissance and Baroque. In his music dictionary of 1767, Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated, “the airs of Noels should have a rustic and pastoral character suited to the simplicity of the words, and to the simplicity of the shepherds who are supposed to have sung them while going to pay homage to the Baby Jesus in the manger.”

In the 17th and 18th century, French composers created instrumental variations on these Noel tunes. We can assume that performers often improvised on them as well. Part of the appeal was how familiar the folk tunes were to the public; hearing them improvised and varied in ingenious ways must have been great fun for both the performer and listener. Some of the finest ornamented variations can be found in the French Baroque organ literature. With the help of BCOC violist and arranger Alex Vittal, I’ve assembled a trio sonata/suite of six Noels that draw on some of the organ variations as well as an anonymous collection from 1725 and other sources.

By the way, it’s true that my last name Nowell is the English version of the French word Noel… which may partially explain why I’m drawn to this little corner of Baroque music!

The suite will conclude our December 3 chamber concert that will also feature music by Bach Handel, and Telemann, as I’m joined by my BCOC colleagues Jubal Fulks and Brune Macary (violins), Linda Lunbeck (recorder), and Sandy Miller (cello). Handel will be represented with two trio sonatas, and Bach by two selections from the Well Tempered Clavier and solo violin Partita in E major. The Prelude from the Partita is one of those pieces by Bach that I equate with pure musical joy! It’s been arranged in many different ways for different instruments, but it’s always wonderful to hear it in its simple original form – for unaccompanied violin.

The Fantasia Factor

Thank you to all who attended to our season opener The Glories of Venice last weekend. The BCOC core ensemble thoroughly enjoyed working with some of Denver’s finest early-music singers to perform gems by Claudio Monteverdi. It was also wonderful to welcome bassist Anne Trout, filling in for our principal bassist David Crowe for this concert weekend. Anne told me that Monteverdi is her “mantra,” so having her for this particular program was a treat. One of the basses she regularly plays in Boston is an Italian instrument from 1610 that may have actually been played in the first performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers.

A highlight of the weekend for me was welcoming music students from El Sistema to our Saturday concert. Soprano Kathryn Radakovich, BCOC violist Alex Vittal, and I had an opportunity to chat with them briefly before the concert about the instruments, voices, and what it’s like to play music that is over 300 years old.

Though the Monteverdi selections were thrilling, I keep coming back to the violin sonata by Fontana performed by Cynthia Miller Freivogel. A free fantasia of a sonata, this piece unfolds over six minutes in a way that seems entirely out of time, alternating between moments of intimacy, whimsy, and passion. It was a reminder of Baroque’s exploratory and improvisational roots. This “fantasia factor” became an animating force, even as Baroque music evolved and became more structured over time.

And back to Monteverdi. I am excited to announce that we are laying the groundwork for a concert production of his monumental opera Orfeo in 2019!

Musical Mavericks

The origins of the word Baroque probably began with an insult. The Portuguese word barroca means misshapen or oddly shaped pearl. When applied to music it wasn’t meant as a compliment. For those who valued symmetry and order in music, the Baroque style in music represented something strange and even grotesque.  

Standing at the dawn of the 17th century in Venice, Claudio Monteverdi was one of several Italian composers exploring bold new dramatic forms of musical expression. He found himself in a fierce controversy as a result. A music theorist attacked him for breaking the time-honored rules of counterpoint, for taking too much license, and creating music that was crude. Monteverdi responded primarily through his music, not words. In his madrigals, operas, and sacred music, he continued to explore new musical paths, tapping into the depths of human emotion. In the words of Robert Hollingworth, “There’s very little artifice in Monteverdi’s music. It’s his own blood directly on the page.” 

Fast-forward a couple of generations in Venice, and Antonio Vivaldi was making a statement of his own. In a period where Arcadian values of balance and restraint were popular, Vivaldi in 1725 published the collection known as Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, with 12 concertos including The Four Seasons. The title suggests a hypothetical contest between Harmony and Invention. “Harmony” referred to the science of composition, the accepted rules of composition, whereas “Invention” referred to the composer’s (and performer’s) inspiration and free imagination. Like Monteverdi, Vivaldi spoke through his music; it’s clear from these 12 concertos that he came down firmly on the side of Invention. 

So here’s to the rule breakers and musical mavericks of the past, and the odd-shaped pearls they created. Their music still has the power to astonish and move us!

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As we enter October (or “Rocktober” for Colorado baseball fans like me), the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado is hard at work preparing our season opener The Glories of Venice on October 13-15. The first concert of a new season of the BCOC always evokes memories for me of our debut 12 years ago. Our core ensemble has evolved and grown since then, and includes both charter members and newer colleagues. I am always excited to work with these wonderful collaborators! I’m also looking forward to sharing the stage next week with some of the area’s finest early music singers in works of Monteverdi, complemented with instrumental works by Fontana and Gabrieli. The second half is all Vivaldi, culminating in a fiery violin concerto from Harmony and Invention, with Cynthia Miller Freivogel as soloist. I hope you will join us! Find out more on our Concerts page.