Fort Worth — On Feb. 7 at the Kimbell Art Museum's Renzo Piano Pavilion, Texas Camerata presented a concert entitled Musica Transalpina, which sent many of us scrambling for a dictionary. Was this some musical school of composition? No, it is a road—actually a route—a very remote one at that. It is in the Parâng Mountains group, which is located in the Southern Carpathians of Romania connects Novaci to Sebeş. The locals call it “The King’s Road.
While interesting, and obviously a winding and picturesque mountain road, these facts had little to do with the concert, which consisted on music from Vienna and Salzburg, both of which are more 450 miles away.
That aside, the music was most interesting and mostly new to many in the audience. Recorder virtuoso Paul Leenhouts not only appeared as guest soloist but also was the one who found all of this music and transcribed it for modern day performances. Not only was the music relatively unknown, but so were most of the composers. The only name many in the audience recognized was Johann Albrechberger, and only because he was one of Beethoven’s most influential teachers. (Beethoven was only seven when this piece was written.) Early music enthusiasts know some of the other names, but all of the works presented were of a very high caliber and excellently performed.
The group plays on historically correct instruments. Some date from that period (1650-1750 or so) while others are accurate modern-day reproductions. The two recorders, one played transverse like a modern flute, are easily recognizable. The string instruments look like those in a modern orchestra, but are subtly different. Baroque string instruments use catgut strings, for one thing.
Moment of Geek: Cat lovers of the world, don’t panic. Catgut is not made from cats, but there is still an ick factor. It is a fibrous string made from the intestines of various barnyard animals: cattle, goats, pigs, etc. It is a long, involved process to make it, but it is very strong and makes a beautiful sound when strung on a violin. It is also a much mellower sound than modern steel-wound strings, but the tradeoff is that you lose the brilliance we associate with the instrument.
Karen Hall, cellist in the Fort Worth Symphony, played on two different instruments with élan, switching between a Baroque cello and a viola da gamba with ease. The Gamba is the same only different. It is the same in that it is held between the legs of the player like a cello, thus the name, but it is different in that it has frets like a guitar.
What all this means is that such an ensemble sounds very much like a modern day one but completely different at the same time. Usually, intonation is a problem, mostly because the strings are sensitive to changes in the barometer or humidity. Also, vibrato is a wobble over the pitch, so intonation doesn’t have to be as dead on as when you don’t use it. To further complicate the matter, the harpsichord is a single string, which has to also be dead on. A piano has three strings for most of the notes, so pitch is a group effort, so to speak.
All this background is offered to explain what an amazing effort it takes for such an ensemble to play in tune, and this is exactly what the Texas Camerata achieved. Their intonation was as near to perfect as you can get. Everyone in the audience sat up and gave the music our undivided attention because of its crystalline clarity and pure intonation.
The music was by Georg Muffat, Andres Christoph Clamer, and a number of selections by Johann Heinrich Schmeltzer. Much of this music sounds like what it is, Baroque, but it has a modern feel to it as well. This is because of the frequent use of cross rhythms, striking changes of pace that turn at the bar line and inadvertent dissonances caused by contrapuntal lines. It is little wonder that Anton Webern, the most severe of the composers of the Second Viennese School (Schönberg and his disciples), was a great admirer of Heinrich Schütz, a master from this era.
In this era of music, the conductor was still in the future. The first chair violin did this job. Violinist and Artistic Director Kristin Van Cleve’s expert direction was accomplished without calling attention to itself, but kept the ensemble precisely together. (See the note at the end of this review.)
Leenhouts is a marvelous recorder virtuoso. As already mentioned, his intonation was excellent, but his musicianship brought finesse to his playing and minimal rubato, which was always in keeping with performance practices. A second recorder player, Lee Lattimore, who turned out to be a fine collaborator, joined him. The two of them delivered excellent playing, demonstrating a mastery over the technique of instrument. Flights of virtuoso passages flashed up and down the instruments and the carefully crafted phrases carried us with them.
Brad Bennight was a wonder on the harpsichord. For the entire program, except for one solo piece, he improvised from a figured bass. This was the custom at the time and it was usually the composer doing the honors. The printed music for a figured bass is only the bass line, like that given to the cello and contra-bass. The harmony is noted by some numbers under the notes that indicate what chord to use and how it is to be voiced. From these bare bones, Bennight created a fascinating and impressive part that made use of everything the instrument can do—and then some. This is a skill that most university graduate programs require, but the class mostly teaches us enough to realize the scope of Bennight’s achievement.
Since the music of the Baroque era is not my area of expertise, it would be worthless to comment on the historical accuracy of the playing. However, that freed me to relax, sit back, and enjoy the music without turning on the critic’s ear.
Note on conductors: As music got more and more complicated and orchestras became bigger and bigger, the violinist in the first chair became less and less able to keep things together. Someone had to take over the job, so the conductor was born.
Early practitioners pounded out the beat with a stick. Can you imagine the conductor pounding noisily on every beat in a modern concert hall? It cultivates a sacred silence to the point that unwrapping a cough drop will get you a nasty glance.
Back then conducting could also be dangerous. The French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687) died from his efforts. He used a large staff, which he banged on the floor as he conducted his works. In his excitement, he hit his toe instead of the floor. The injury became gangrenous, for which there was nothing to do at the time, and he died a few months later from the wound.
Today’s conductors do not risk their lives per se. They only risk skewering by the critics.