Sunday, August 6, 2017

ABS Festival Jams in the 17th and 18th Centuries

Every summer the American Bach Soloists (ABS) Festival presents a program of chamber music to showcase the faculty members of the ABS Academy. This gives the Academy students an opportunity to observe how those who have been coaching them put their own advice into practice. For the rest of us, this program is always a delightful reminder of my favorite precept that “the music is in the making,” prioritizing the spontaneity of performance over the marks that happen to be on paper.

Mind you, prior to the eighteenth century, those marks carried far less authority than we allow them to bear today. Notating the music one made was often more important as a means to create a salable product through publication. It would not be sacrilege to presume that those who achieved a healthy revenue for their marks on paper were not necessarily very picky about how those marks were interpreted. Indeed, where virtuosity was concerned, publication gave the virtuoso an opportunity to strut before the amateurs purchasing his pieces, almost as if the composer was bragging to the customer, “You will never be as good as I am!”

It should therefore be no surprise that were those who would use those publications as a platform for performances to show off that they were as good as the composer, if not better. While such strutting contests probably figured among those trying to earn a living, the primary audience for all of those publications consisted of amateurs, who, true to the root of that noun, wanted to make music out of the sheer love of doing so. For them, the publications provided a point of departure from which they could do their best. More important was the social factor of gathering together for the sake of having a go at a newly acquired publication.

That social factor is what breathes life into the annual Festival chamber music program. The Academy faculty members set aside the intensity of serious coaching in favor of the joy of being a part of a small group bringing life to some collection of marks on paper. Their students may then appreciate what is really important about making music, while the rest of us can enjoy being along for the ride.

The aforementioned role of spontaneity reminds us that such practices from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are the legitimate precursors of small-group jazz sessions that flourished during the twentieth century. In other words last night’s chamber music program at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church amounted to an evening of different ways of jamming. This did not necessarily involve only inventive improvisation but could also emerge through imaginative approaches to interpreting those marks on paper. Of particular importance where those pieces in which thematic material would be exchanged among different performers, suggesting that making music was a means of conversation that did not necessarily involve words.

That social perspective was most evident last night through the practices of the two violinists, Elizabeth Blumenstock and Robert Mealy, whether they were playing as soloists or engaging in a “duo conversation.” One could also appreciate the extent to which continuo, Corey Jamason on harpsichord and both William Skeen and Kenneth Slowik on low strings, establishes the context in which both soliloquy and dialog may emerge. As a result, while most, if not all, of the music being performed was likely to be unfamiliar to all but the most scholarly, the attentive listener could easily get engaged in the dynamics of the performance practices, without worrying about not recognizing any of the themes.

The same could be said of the song settings performed by baritones Max von Egmond and William Sharp and mezzo Judith Malafronte. Many of the selections involved arch delivery, sometimes reinforced with solid acting chops. Henry Laws’ “Dialogue on a kiss” could easily have been a confrontation between two nineteenth century vaudevillians, rather than a baritone duo. Equally fascinating was Malafronte’s delivery of Thomas Arne’s settings of songs from As You Like It, composed for a revival performance that took place over 150 years after the death of author William Shakespeare.

Sadly, there were many visible empty seats in the St. Mark’s sanctuary. This seems to be the case every summer. Too many are inclined to shy away from the chamber music evening, fearing that it will be some sort of “specialist offering.” Last night’s concert was anything but. The music may have been unfamiliar, but the making was unmistakably engaging from first note to last.

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