Saturday, May 27, 2017


May 26, Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

Considering that the 17th century was one of the key periods of transition in Western art music – a time when Renaissance style evolved into baroque style, when the violin family began to supplant viols (alongside innovations in winds and keyboards), when secular instrumental compositions began to rise to parity with vocal works – the music of that century is essentially a black hole for most listeners.

Quick: Name a prominent composer of the 1600s whose music is heard regularly. If the only names that spring to mind are Henry Purcell and Johann Pachelbel, and the only titles are a trumpet voluntary that Purcell didn’t write and Pachelbel’s Canon, you’re a pretty mainstream classical music listener.

It’s safe to assume that the composers represented in a program by the baroque ensemble ACRONYM, making its Richmond debut at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, were unknown to most everyone in the audience. Edwin Huizinga, the lead violinist of this 12-member ensemble of strings with keyboards (harpsichord and portative organ), said the group has quite likely given the US premieres of much of the music in this concert and on the group’s recordings.

The program, titled “From Venice to Vienna,” sampled the works of three generations of composers who took the style of Giovanni Gabrieli, leading light of the Venetian School, and developed it into a template, or rough draft, of the mature baroque style.

The composers were employed in the courts of the Habsburg Archduke, later Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, first in Graz, later in Vienna, and of his successor, Ferdinand III. These monarchs, whose reigns saw the rise of Protestantism under Martin Luther and John Calvin, the resulting Catholic Counter-Reformation, the Thirty Years War and the Ottoman Turks’ second Siege of Vienna, must have needed all the musical diversion they could get.

Pieces by Giovanni Priuli and Giovanni Valentini, both pupils of Gabrieli, sounded like instrumental echoes of their teacher’s vocal church music, although some of the harmonic leaps of Valentini’s Sonata à 4 (“Enharmonic”) would have knocked mitres askew at San Marco.

Pieces from the next generation, by Antonio Bertali and Alessandro Poglietti, pre-echo the binary slow-fast sonata form perfected in the 18th century by Domenico Scarlatti in his hundreds of keyboard sonatas. By the third generation, of figures such as Johann Rosenmüller, Adam Drese and Johann Christoph Pezel, there are clear intimations, in form and instrumental voicings, of Vivaldi, Telemann and other masters of the high baroque. (And in Clemens Thieme’s Sonata à 8 in C major, a serviceable alternative to the Pachelbel Canon.)

ACRONYM, whose name is an acronym for Albino-Squirrel Consort Radiating from Oberlin to New York, Mostly (i.e., the musicians are alumni of Oberlin College & Conservatory, which in 2014 chose an albino squirrel as its mascot, and are now mostly based in New York), translates its sense of fun in nomenclature to its music-making.

I’ve rarely seen musicians playing with such deep grounding in musicology and instrumental technique display as much spontaneity and delight in performing. If I had seen them without hearing them, I might have thought I was looking at an exotically instrumented string band at a hoedown.

Several appeared to savor their ornate surroundings, too, gazing up at the cathedral’s Italianate baroque arches and dome as they played.

The violinists exploited the resonance of the space in these pieces’ many long, tapered notes and sudden dynamic shifts. The cellist and viol players coped with an acoustic that reflected softer, more woodsy tones in dense, woolly clusters of sound.