Saturday, May 6 (afternoon) First Presbyterian Church, Edmonton
Vivaldi: Trio Sonata in C major, RV 82
Renée Pérez Rodríguez (archlute) Stephanie Wong (harpsichord)
Vivaldi: Chamber Concerto in G major, RV 554
Telemann: Viola Concerto in G major, TWV 51:G9
Alessandro Marcello: Oboe Concerto in D minor, S.Z. 799
Vivaldi: Concerto for 2 violins in A minor, RV 522
Divertimento Chamber Ensemble
Fortunato Chelleri: Suite in E
J.S. Bach: Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041
Arrangement of Buxtehude: Passacaglia, BWV 161
La Folia Baroque String Ensemble
Saturday, May 6 (evening) First Presbyterian Church, Edmonton
Corelli: Concerto grossi and sonatas Geminiani: sonatas
Naomie Delafield (baroque violin)
Laura Veeze (baroque violin)
Gabriele Thielmann (baroque violin)
Louise Stuppard (baroque violin)
Ronelle Schaufele (baroque viola)
Josephine van Lier (baroque cello)
Joëlle Morton (baroque bass)
Marnie Giesbrecht (harpsichord)
Sunday May 7 First Presbyterian Church, Edmonton
Arrangements of J.S. Bach:
Prelude and Fugue in B flat minor, BWV 867, from Well-Tempered Clavier Fantasia in G minor BWV 572
aria “Schafe können sicher weiden” (“Sheep May Safely Graze”) from the Hunting Cantata, BWV 208
Brandenburg Concerto No.6, BWV 1051 Sonatina (Molto adagio) from the cantata Actus Tragicus, BWV 106
Partita No.2 for violin in D minor, BWV 1004
Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582
Sonata No.3 for viola da gamba and harpsichord, BWV 1029
Elizabeth Rumsey (treble and tenor viols)
Joëlle Morton (tenor viol)
Debra Lonergan (bass viol)
Josephine Van Lier (consort bass viol)
Marilyn Fung (G violone)
Jeanne Yang (harpsichord)
The Early Music Festival presented by Early Music Alberta has now been running since 2011, and has happily settled down into a successful formula with a healthy audience base. Alongside the major concerts, the three-day festival held in the downtown First Presbyterian Church includes dance and performance workshops for those new to period practice, masterclasses, and pre-concert talks. In other words, it consciously aims at both those who are early-music aficionados, and those new to such period music.
“Early music” for Early Music Alberta encompasses quite a range of eras, for much of their music-making is of baroque music, rather than Renaissance or medieval works. I couldn’t, unfortunately, attend the main opening early music concert on the Friday (May 5), where Edmonton’s professional early music choral group, the Scona Chamber Singers, gave a program of English choral music from the Tudor period. The rest of the festival was, indeed, of Baroque music.
One thing that the Festival (and Early Music Alberta) really has encouraged is the playing of early music by Edmonton musicians, both amateur and professional, often on original instruments or their copies. That was reflected in this year’s Festival, with the Saturday afternoon concert especially devoted to local amateur groups.
It opened splendidly with a Vivaldi trio sonata (in C major, RV 82) played on a relative rarity, the archlute, by René Pérez Rodríguez, with Stephanie Wong on the harpsichord. The archlute is much as the name might suggest – a basic lute body with and extended neck and strings to give a wider range of lower notes. The trio sonata was originally written for lute, violin, and continuo, but it worked well in this arrangement, particularly in the slow movement where the contribution from the harpsichord was less pronounced, and the particular richness of the archlute could come across.
The Divertimento Chamber Ensemble, who followed, is a group of amateur musicians who come together to play early music on modern instruments, here including a decidedly anachronistic saxophone. It was played by Rafael Tian, very effectively in the opening Vivaldi Chamber Concerto in C major, RV 554, where he made the instrument sound analogous to organ pipes.
The rest of their program was entertaining, too, with the amateur status of the ensemble primarily obvious in the inevitable occasional lapses of intonation. Joe Dupis was the soloist in a Telemann viola concerto, played with gusto. The two different movements of Alessandro Marcello’s Oboe Concerto in D Minor, S.Z. 799, were given to two different instruments: the oboe (Verona Goodman), and then saxophone – an interesting contrast. Vivaldi’s Concerto for 2 Violins in A minor, RV 522, was played with great enthusiasm by the whole ensemble, with Carlene Friesen and Anele Mhlahlo effective soloists – the latter, a student at Burman University in Lacombe, had stepped in at relatively short notice to take over from a soloist who was unavailable.
The second half of the concert was given by La Folia Baroque String Ensemble, a group of Edmonton amateur musicians who play on original instruments or copies, under the musical direction of a professional, the artistic director of the Festival, Josephine van Lier. The Festival always tries to include some less familiar work, and La Folia opened with the Suite in E by Fortunato Chelleri, an Italian composer who worked in both Italy and Germany. The music – essentially a dance suite – was pleasant enough, but not in truth that memorable. Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041, however, needs little introduction, and received a committed performance from Lois Harder, who besides being an enthusiastic amateur musician, is Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. The performance was nicely paced, too, in the outer movements, though surely a little slow in the middle movement – Harder could accommodate the tempi van Lier had chosen, but it made for rather a plodding-sounding ensemble. With an effective arrangement of a Buxtehude organ Passacaglia (in D minor, BxWV161) to close, La Folia showed that the art of amateur music making is happily alive and well in an age of streaming downloads and ear buds.
The concert on Saturday evening (May 6) was devoted to the concerto grosso, with works mainly by the master of the form, Arcangelo Corelli, and two by Francesco Saverio Geminiani, the Italian composer who later worked in England, and is perhaps best known for his treatise The Art of the Violin (1731). The all-string (plus harpsichord), and all-women ensemble was made up of Albertan musicians specializing in early music.
I unfortunately was unable to stay for the second half of what was a substantial concert, but there was plenty to enjoy in the first half, with some notable playing in particular from violinist Laura Veeze, a member of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. The opening Corelli’s Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.2, a work full of lyrical, sometimes almost sentimental, music, got the evening off to an excellent start, and there was wonderfully lively and enthusiastic playing in Corelli’s Op.6 No.4. Most enjoyable music making.
The final evening on Sunday (May 7) recreated a concert given in Toronto in 2015. Van Lier reassembled the consort of distinguished international early music players who had played in that concert, from the States, Switzerland, and Canada. They formed a relative rarity: a so-called ‘low consort’ of viols. Viol consorts usually consist of treble, tenor, and bass, but the ‘low consort’ has two tenors, two basses, and a violone, a bass instrument that was the forerunner of the double bass. The overall sound of the ‘low consort’ is, as one would expect, a little darker and richer than the standard consort, creating a warm sound that still retains that particular viol edge to the tone. This ensemble, too, was very homogeneous in that sound, despite the range of instruments – closer together in tones and colours than, say, a modern string quartet. Again, all the musicians were women – in itself welcome, but this was not a gender-neutral festival!
If we perhaps particularly associate a consort of viols with 16th-century music, the instruments continued to be used until well into the 18th century (Louis XIV particularly liked their sound), and this concert consisted entirely of Bach works, arranged for this particular combination of string instruments.
The opening sonatina from the funeral cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106, didn’t need too much arranging, as the original is for two alto recorders, two violas da gamba, and bass continuo. It worked well for the da gamba ensemble, though I confess I did rather miss the sharpness of the recorder against the strings of the original – the effect was to submerge the importance of that tune, making the whole thing more funereal.
The organ Fantasia in G minor BWV 572 didn’t work quite so well – the ensemble was too homogeneous in its sound to successfully recreate the various colours of the organ pipes – but the famous aria “Schafe können sicher weiden” (“Sheep May Safely Graze” from the Hunting Cantata, BWV 208), where the consort was joined by harpsichord, was very attractive indeed, those colours being all to the advantage. Similarly the clarity of different voices, and the pizzicato section of the Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582, made for some attractive music-making.
The Brandenburg Concerto No.6 was especially entertaining, the intertwining flow of the ensemble really working in the opening movement, and with some sensitive playing from harpsichordist Jeanne Yang. Again, the arrangement didn’t need to stray too far from the original, which is for two violas, two viola da gamba, cello, violin, and harpsichord.
The final work in the festival was a different matter. It had been billed as Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.7 (which of course doesn’t exist), but was actually an arrangement of his Sonata No.3 for viola da gamba and harpsichord, BWV 1029. The idea for naming this as the seventh Brandenburg (there have been other candidates) comes from Peter Williams, who argued in Early Music in 1984 that the sonata had first been conceived as a concerto. An arrangement by Duncan Bruce in C minor, for the same instrumentation as the Brandenburg Concerto No.6, was published in 1992, and I assume formed the basis for this viol consort arrangement.
Inevitably, the arrangement is fairly extensive, with much of the original harpsichord writing being given to the consort, with a more continuo role for harpsichord here. Indeed, there are distinct similarities to the 6th Brandenburg, especially in the first movement, and if it doesn’t quite have the bite of that more celebrated work, it made an unexpected and welcome foil to it.
This was a most attractive concert, played with enthusiasm and authority, interesting not only for the consort itself, but also for the arrangements of Bach. There was something wonderfully mellow about it, leaving one in a comfortable, happy mood, as if one had just finished a good dinner in entertaining company with a glass of rich port – a successful ending to another successful Early Music Festival.