Baroque music transcends centuries

Members of Juilliard415 perform. Photo: Supplied
Members of Juilliard415 perform. Photo: Supplied
A piece written by a Dunedin composer and inspired by Dunedin poetry will feature in a concert tour of New Zealand by top baroque ensemble Juilliard415. Rebecca Fox reports.

Adapting her composing style to the instruments of a baroque orchestra of two and a-half centuries ago, composer Dame Gillian Whitehead has created a piece of music reflective of the present and the past.

She had been asked to write a piece for American baroque ensemble Juilliard415 — made up of historical performance students from The Juilliard School in New York led by violinist Robert Mealy — for their New Zealand tour.

‘‘It was a great opportunity to explore the sound world of an ensemble I’d not written for before, and an ensemble of such exceptional players.’’

She took her queues from a poem by Dunedin poet Claire Beynon called Time steps out of line.

‘‘As I was writing, sometimes ideas from the music of the time came to mind, and I let them stay, so you could see it as a dialogue that shifts between then and now.’’

The combinations of instruments in the ensemble flutes and oboes (two of each), strings, a few percussion instruments and a continuo group of low strings reinforced by bassoon, and harpsichord or theorbo (a bass lute), are very different from what she usually writes for.

Because of their construction, the range of the older instruments is more limited than those of today, the sounds are gentler and the dynamic range is not so wide, she says.

So she did away with the idea of continuo, and gave prominence to the continuo instruments through featuring the bassoon in an opening solo, and getting the theorbo and harpsichord to perform short improvisations.

‘‘It’s not possible with this ensemble to work with expressionistic ideas, or ideas that push the ensemble to extremes, or work with extremes of dynamics.’’

Mealy says they have been really enjoying playing Dame Gillian’s work.

‘‘Gillian Whitehead’s compositional language is a challenging one; it’s been a really good process for everyone to stretch themselves and be asked to play things that they don’t normally do. We love the piece.’’

For Mealy, the tour allows the ensemble to further its goal of bringing baroque music to life as ‘‘vividly as possible, to make old music new again’’.

Historical music has been part of Mealy’s life for as long as he can remember. He started playing the violin and keyboard when he was 6, switching to baroque violin and harpsichord when he was about 14.

‘‘The Bay Area has a thriving early music scene, and I was fascinated by the instruments and the sounds of historical performance from a very young age. Berkeley California is a university town, so I got involved in the early music collegium at the university while I was still in high school.’’

That passion has never left him and lead to his teaching career — he has taught at Yale, directing the postgraduate Yale Baroque Ensemble and the Yale Collegium Musicum and at Harvard for over a decade. In 2004, he received EMA’s Binkley Award for outstanding teaching and scholarship.

Mealy believes it can be amazingly liberating for modern players to discover historical performance.

‘‘There’s room for things that just don’t happen so much in mainstream repertoire: room for improvisation, for a groove, for a wonderful eloquence in having the music speak in vivid gestures.

‘‘It can also be a challenge for highly trained modern musicians to find that they are back at square one with an instrument they thought they knew well, since baroque instruments work so differently from their modern counterparts. But this also can be liberating: a kind of ‘beginner’s mind’ in discovering what the instrument wants to do.’’

Juilliard415 — A Tale Of Two Countries, March 12, Glenroy Auditorium, Dunedin, 7.30pm; March 13, Civic Theatre, Invercargill, 7.30pm.

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