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Concert Preview: EMG presents Ensemble Electra on First Tuesdays Series

September 15, 2009
On Tuesday, October 6, Ensemble Electra will perform at 7:30PM at Trinity Parish Church Parish Hall, 609 Eighth Avenue, Seattle.  This is the second concert of EMG’s second season of its First Tuesdays series.  For more information about First Tuesdays and the artists of Ensemble Electra, please click here. Tickets will be available at the door, or click here to buy tickets in advance.

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For a thousand years, European composers devoted their best efforts to music for voices: their dominant forms were the mass, the motet, the madrigal. Suddenly, around 1600, instruments emerged as a medium for serious expression, diversifying into new forms with lightning speed like a Cambrian explosion in music: toccata, canzona, concerto, fantasia.

In their October 6th First Tuesday recital for Early Music Guild, the three members of Ensemble Electra give us a whirlwind tour through just one of those new forms, the sonata, from its first chaotic manifestations to its full formal glory.

In the beginning, a sonata was simply any piece of music meant to be “sounded,” rather than sung (“cantata”). The first example in Ensemble Electra’s program, by the Milanese Giovanni Cima, wasn’t even published independently but padded out a 1610 volume of “ecclesiastical concertos.” “It seems to be very experimental,” says Electra’s flute and recorder player Vicki Boekman. “There’s no indication of what instruments should be used, and it’s composed in a number of different short sections with no tempo markings, so the players have to be sensitive to the feeling of each, when to be lyrical, when to be more rhythmical.”

The Cima sonata exhibits another quality that was to mark the new form: the virtuoso demands of the solo line. That tendency reaches a climax in another work on the Electra program, by the mystery composer Dario Castello. About all we know of him is that he was leader of the wind band at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice when his collection Concerti concertati was published in 1629 during Claudio Monteverdi’s tenure as music director there. “Castello labeled his pieces ‘in stile moderno,’ ” Boekman says, “and they certainly are modern in style, with the tempo changing abruptly from adagio to allegro to presto every few bars. The harmonies are sometimes bizarre; you could swear you hear Moroccan and African influences in the music.” Unlike Cima, Castello often specified what instrument he wanted to play which line. If indeed he knew a trombone player who could execute the intricate figurations he demanded in some of his pieces, the standard of musicianship of Venice in the mid-17th century must have been extraordinarily high.

The exhilarating musical chaos of the early baroque finally stabilized in the compositions of Archangelo Corelli (1653–1713), whose formal genius set the tone for composers of instrumental music for nearly a century. It was he who established a slow-fast-slow-fast four-section form as the default pattern for forms as diverse as the overture, the sonata, and the concerto, with each “movement” fully developed with its own beginning, middle and end. Despite his own virtuosity on the violin, Corelli was a musical conservative; the work chosen for Ensemble Electra’s recital, the third sonata from his widely published op. 5 collection (Rome, 1700) exhibits the same spirit of elegant reserve that make French marble sculptures of the period so memorable.

Corelli’s classicism was influential north of the Alps as well. The self-taught Saxon Telemann for one learned his craft from his publications. He himself remarked that he thought he did his best work in his trio sonatas, But Corelli didn’t go unchallenged on home ground. He met his match in the youthful Georg Friedrich Handel during his Roman years, who scandalized the older man with his exotic and unprecedented instrumental demands.

While the sonata was evolving in Italy, French composers followed their own path toward instrumental expressivity, preferring the suite of “characteristique” pieces to the stricter and more abstract forms preferred to the east and south. Even as late as the 1730s, Jean-Marie Leclair called his “easy-to-execute” pieces for two flutes and continuo “Musical Recreations,” not sonatas.

In the end, it was Bach who created the synthesis of Italian discipline and German expressivity which defined the “trio sonata” as we’re familiar with it today. His E flat solo sonata (transposed in Electra’s recital to F to accommodate Boekman’s alto recorder) is “old-fashioned” in its contrapuntal intricacy but is already touched by the galant spirit of the rococo. In a program spanning hardly 100 years, Ensemble Electra shows music history running at fast-forward. – Roger Downey

One Comment leave one →
  1. Hugh Clark permalink
    September 30, 2009 12:35 PM

    Wow. I really enjoy your historical notes and comments. Thanks.

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