Last night St. Mark’s Lutheran Church hosted the second concert in the Festival portion of the 2016 American Bach Soloists (ABS) Festival & Academy. Following the overall theme, An Italian Journey, the title of last night’s program was Postcards from The Grand Tour. However, the tour was not so much a geographical one as a series of “visits” to Italian composers who were, for the most part, active during the seventeenth century. Eight such composers were presented; and this was the sort of evening when everyone in the audience (with the possible exception of the Academy students) would have found at least one of those names unfamiliar. (In my own case I shall fess up to Giovanni Battista Bassani.)
The program was presented by the Faculty members of the ABS Academy, who gathered into groups of different sizes. At one extreme Cory Jamason performed a solo harpsichord composition by Girolamo Frescobaldi, taking the time to point out that his instrument had been provided by John Phillips, whose shop in Berkeley produces four to six instruments per year, using French, Flemish, German, and Italian designs as models. At the other end the evening concluded with a concerto da camera by Antonio Vivaldi scored for flute (Sandra Miller), oboe (Debra Nagy), violin (Robert Mealy), bassoon (Dominic Teresi), and continuo (Jamason joined by Steven Lehning on bass). The program also included two vocal sections, both for bass voice, three arias by Frescobaldi sung by Max van Egmond and a comic cantata by Bassani sung by William Sharp.
While there was a generous scope of diversity across the entire evening, it was also interesting to observe how many of the selections involved some form of unfolding variations on a repeated bass line, such as a chaconne or a passacaglia. Even one of the Frescobaldi arias was a passacaglia, as was Jamason’s harpsichord solo, whose title “Cento Partite” suggested 100 variations. It turned out, however, that the proper translation for “cento” in this case was “a lot;” and the actual number of variations turned out to be 124! However, since the repeated bass line consisted of only two measures, the piece unfolded at a fair clip.
If the basic form was a familiar one, it was subjected to a generous amount of perturbation by many of the composers. Violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock introduced the chaconne by Antonio Caldara by reminding the audience of how a typical chaconne sounds. She then concluded by saying, “This isn’t one of them.” Indeed the thing about having a repeated bass line as your point of reference is that you always know when to expect the perfect cadence that marks the end of one variation and the beginning of the next. However, both Caldara and Frescobaldi shattered those expectations with unexpected ventures into remote harmonic regions, leaving little more than rhythmic pattern to define the foundation for the variations. One could even imagine that Frescobaldi’s harpsichord piece had its origins improvisation, either to please a small audience or for his own satisfaction; and, after having experimented for enough time to let his performance “converge,” he then decided to prepare a notated documentation of his efforts.
The Caldara example, on the other hand, suggested that group performances from the seventeenth century may also have afforded opportunities for significantly adventurous improvisation. Such improvisation would benefit from an easily recognized point of reference, such as a bass line; but even that bass line might then be subject to alterations, often very striking ones. Seventeenth-century Italian music may thus be as much of an ancestor of many of the more ambitious bebop improvisations as the indigenous American music usually taken to be the roots of jazz.
From that point of view, last night’s performance was distinguished most of all by the spontaneity of approach taken to each composition on the program. Even when all details had been committed to notation, each performance had the in-the-moment immediacy of jazz jamming at its best. (In the case of Bassani’s cantata, the jamming even extended from musicianship to dramatization. Sharp presented Bassani’s depiction of a “reluctant musician” with a rich palette of mannerisms to depict a singer so full of himself with his performance techniques that he did not notice that his audience failed to share his opinions.) Spontaneity in execution was probably facilitated by the fact that all of the participating musicians knew each other well and had played with each other in the past. often under ABS auspices. Thus, the overall spirit of the occasion was that those in the audience happened to be fortunate enough to be “flies on the wall” while several highly-skilled musicians gathered together simply to enjoy the pleasures of making music in small groups.