Bach flock: Getting in tune with the classics

Early Music Ensemble
Old Cabell Hall
Sunday, April 25

I was trying to come up with a catchy opening line for this review of the Early Music Ensemble's (EME) afternoon performance at Old Cabell Hall, and my usual powers of crackpot journalism did not seem to be working.

"Choked on Baroque?" "Balmy for Bach?" "All's well with Purcell?" Nothing seemed to fit, except, "There's nothing funny about fugues," which to avoid a plagiarism lawsuit, I must credit to my fair lady (the girl, not the musical).

The afternoon concert last Sunday promised to be an educational experience for me, as I'm not particularly up on classical music. The concert, titled "John Sebastian Bach and his Central-European Predecessors" appeared to be a crash course in styles leading up to the Baroque period of western composers. In case you've never dated someone really into classical music who could clue you in, Baroque is a mode of classical music in which almost mathematical precision, rather than emotion, is the name of the game.

The concert in Old Cabell Hall was rather sparsely attended, and though I had not been to another EME show, I'm going to blame that fact on the looming pressure of finals rather than troglodytes in orange and blue.

After listening to a bit of the Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble's first piece, "Canzon duodecimi toni" (1597), two problems were immediately apparent. One was that the concert was not, as I had expected, organized in a logical, linear manner. The dates of the pieces ranged from 1584 to somewhere after 1700 (but before Bach's death in 1750), jumping from older to newer to older as the concert wore on.

Rather than seeing a natural progression of Baroque's predecessors leading eventually to the genre, we were cast about in time with only the program to guide us. The other problem was one of tuning, which even my un-cultured ears could recognize. But hey, I'm willing to admit that period instruments might be a bit difficult to keep in tune.

The first piece that really caught my attention was the Viola da Gamba Consort's performance of Tye's "Allemande-Tripla." A viola da gamba resembles the modern cello, but comes in a number of different sizes, producing different notes at different octaves. This piece, with its long flowing first part, featured line-ending solo flourishes by most of the group's performers, and jumped to double-pace waltz-time for its triumphant second half.

Buxtehude's "Laudate pueri Dominum," performed by the Viola da Gamba Consort with director Paul Walker on organ, featured the absolutely exquisite, almost operatic, singing of sopranos Rebecca Roberts and Laura Wood. This piece was the high point of the concert for me: Everything seemed to stay in tune, and the piece was the most technically and emotionally powerful.

Bach's "Freue dich, erloste Schar, BWV 30" performed by the nine-piece Vocal Ensemble and the 12-piece Baroque Orchestra, again including director Walker on organ, was also a memorable piece, where weaving violin and exotic walking cello easily made up for the slightly out-of-tune flute.

What did I learn from the afternoon? 1) A little tuning goes a long way, and 2) Classical music is taking up permanent residence in my listening repertoire.

The Early Music Ensemble