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CHAMBER REVIEW

Violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock

BOUNDLESS BAROQUE ARTISTRY IN LIVE OAK SCHROEDER HALL CONCERT

by Joanna Bramel Young
Sunday, October 19, 2014

On October 19 the Live Oak Baroque Orchestra, directed by baroque violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock, appeared in the first of several concerts it is to present at Schroeder Hall in Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center. The new 250-seat recital space is the perfect venue for chamber music, which requires a certain intimacy between performers and audience.

In an informal half-hour pre-concert presentation the performers discussed the 17th and 18th century “duels” among various baroque composers on the program. Viola da gambist Mary Springfels described 17th century Dresden, capital of Saxony, as a magnet for musicians and composers from all over Europe wishing to compete for the court’s favor, as well as for wider recognition. While Bach was the most celebrated of these, noted violinists Georg Pisendel (1687-1755) and Francesco Maria Veracini (1690-1768), as well as French organist Louis Marchand (1699-1732), were among those who sought fame in Dresden during this period. Four of the “Dresden duelists” were represented in this program: Veracini and Pisendel, and Marchand and Bach, although Bach was in a sense standing in for Jean Baptiste Volumier, concertmaster of the Dresden court orchestra. As the concert’s program notes tell it, Pisendel resented Veracini’s appearance and rapid rise in Dresden, and so he challenged the Italian to play an exceptionally difficult violin passage he had composed. Following Veracini’s awkward attempt, Pisendel summoned forth the last chair second violinist, whom he had secretly coached to master the piece. The violinist’s graceful handling of it so humiliated Veracini that he left town and returned to Italy.

Volumier did not appreciate the arrival in Dresden of the arrogant Marchand and so invited Bach, who also happened to be there at the time, to one of Marchand’s performances. Volumier then proposed to the competitive Bach that he challenge Marchand to a musical “duel.” Unaware of the identity of his challenger, the Frenchman accepted, agreeing that the “duel” would require improvising at the harpsichord on subjects chosen by the opponent. However, Marchand then realized who his opponent actually was, and fled Dresden for good.

The performers in this concert were violinists Blumenstock, Tyler Lewis and Aaren Westman (who also played viola), violist Maria Caswell, Springfels, and multitasking keyboardist Henry Lebedinsky. All of the string players were playing baroque instruments, including the 1660 Guarneri violin played by Ms. Blumenstock. Most baroque string instruments have been “modernized” by strengthening so that their delicate frames can withstand steel strings; baroque strings are made of gut. Moreover, bows are now concave, whereas the baroque bow is convex and held several inches from the bow’s nut.

The viola da gamba, or bass viol, is cradled between the knees, without a peg to support it. Like a guitar, it has frets and six strings. It is bowed “underhand,” unlike the violin and the modern cello. Meanwhile the keyboard instruments, used alternately, were a small baroque chamber organ, a harpsichord, and the sumptuous 1,248-pipe Brombaugh tracker organ that is mounted majestically above the stage.

Some of the earliest compositions on the program, including works by Matthias Weckmann (c1616-1674) and Carlo Farina (1600-1639), were performed in the first half. Schein’s Suite no. XI (1617) was a set of dances. “Schein was, in essence, an Elizabethan in Europe,” Mary Springfels told us. “His dance suite has an English feel.” Hence the Suite was “real dance music.” Quoting a composer of the period, Ms. Springfels said, “There are pieces that are ‘a dance for the feet’ and pieces that are ‘a dance for the ears.’ “ In the opinion of this reviewer (who has performed music of this period) this is an important distinction. In the renaissance and baroque, dance was very much a part of peoples’ lives, and thus a great deal of music for dances was composed. Later in the baroque, works based on dances continued to be created but were not intended for actual dancing; e.g., Bach’s dance suites. Nonetheless, they still were meant to be played very much in the manner of genuine dances.

The opening Weckmann work was a delight, consisting of sections of brilliant agitation melting into slow, melismatic descending phrases. There was a great deal of imitation: a statement was made by one instrument, then each voice would enter in its turn, echoing the same phrase. Sudden changes of mood sustained interest; light, dancy passages would dissolve into segments of profound sorrow and mournfulness. Meanwhile, the chamber organ contributed deep, beautifully blending bass notes that softly and firmly “grounded” the ensemble. Mary Springfels demonstrated a complete mastery of her gamba.

Elizabeth Blumenstock made everything she played look easy! She tends to choose the fastest tempos for the Allegros, but her brilliant ornaments and carefully thought-out articulations are always clear and precise. Her slow movements squeeze every bit of emotion from the poignant melodies.

The magnificent pipe organ was featured in a work by Bach (Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele) and stole the show. Organist Henry Lebedinsky climbed to the high loft and, before taking his seat, flashed an enthusiastic “thumbs up” to the audience, indicating the awaiting organ and eliciting cheers from below. The piece opened energetically with lively ornamented harmonies, played with great facility. At intervals in the work the haunting slower principal melody of the hymn emerged suddenly above the agitation beneath it, and then subsided back into the fabric, to emerge again and again.

The violin concerto by Veracini gave soloist Blumenstock full opportunity to display her virtuosity. This high baroque work began with an Allegro and other instruments accompanying with simple chords on each strong beat. The solo violin’s ebullient and brilliant runs above the “orchestra” reminded me of Vivaldi. In the Grave, the gamba’s walking bass accompanied the violins’ plaintive ornamented lines. The final Presto pulled out all the stops, again showing off Blumenstock’s impressive facility

The Pisendel violin sonata, performed by Aaron Westman, was for violin and basso continuo. After masterfully rendering this virtuosic and highly ornamented sonata, Mr. Westman was heard to murmur, “Take that, Veracini!”

Closing the program was the entire ensemble of six performing Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in D Minor. Once again, Ms. Blumenstock was responsible for the solo violin part, eliciting grins of pleasure from the audience. The fast movements in particular sparkled. Throughout the evening the ensemble played with perfect intonation, crisp articulations, and impeccable phrase endings, which at times would decrescendo to absolute silence.

The audience of 200 people stood with applause and shouts of “Bravo!” As a sort of dessert, the ensemble played an encore called “Volta” by Carlo Farina. This early baroque piece, probably composed in the mid 1600s, was rich in delightful cross rhythms and was obviously meant to be danced. The volta was an exuberant high-leaping dance performed at court. It was a fitting end to an exquisitely performed program.

According to the printed program’s “Upcoming Events”, the Live Oak Baroque Orchestra is scheduled to appear again at Schroeder Hall on Nov. 21 and 22, Dec. 12 and 13, and in 2015 Jan. 9 through 11.