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Esther Simplot, the Simplot Foundation give $90,000 to Boise Baroque

Esther Simplot and the J.R. Simplot Foundation announced a grant of $90,000 to the Boise Baroque Chamber Orchestra. The funds will be spread over three years and will be used to boost musicians pay and develop the group farther.

This is the first large gift Simplot has made to Boise Baroque. It comes after she established a $3 million endowment for continued support for Ballet IdahoOpera Idaho and the Boise Philharmonic in May.

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A Stimulating Spin on Handel’s Life

George Frideric Handel, center, and King George I on the River Thames on July 17, 1717, painted by Edouard Hamman.

George Frideric Handel, center, and King George I on the River Thames in July 1717, painted by Edouard Hamman.

The Lives of George Frideric Handel. David Hunter.
Boydell and Brewer, 2015. 536 pages.

By Mark Kroll

BOOK REVIEW — Do we really need another biography of George Frideric Handel? This latest entry in the extensive literature about the iconic composer asks that very question on the book jacket, and answers it before you get to the title page: “To evaluate the familiar, even over-familiar, story of Handel’s life could be seen as a quixotic endeavor. How can there be anything new to say? David Hunter’s book seeks to distinguish fact from fiction, not only to produce a new biography but also to explore the concepts of biography and dissemination by using Handel’s life and lives as a case study.”

The Lives of George Frideric Handel more than accomplishes its goals. Well-written, richly documented, and colorfully presented, Hunter’s unique spin on what we know about Handel, or thought we knew, is a valuable addition to the early-music library.

handel-jacket-450You sense you are in for an exciting ride just by scanning the table of contents. Chapters such as “The Audience: Three Broad Categories, Three Gross Errors,” “Musicians and other Occupational Hazards,” and “Self and Health” are not standard fare in most musicological studies. Nor is Hunter’s description of his methodology in the preface: “Instead of a chronological sequence, the chapters enact a Möbius strip, by which, at the end, we have looked not only at what biographers have said about events but also at the biographers themselves. Handel’s life and lives and their story-tellers will be seen from new angles but as part of a continuous whole.”

Hunter does not disappoint. He deals with such issues as gender, religion, sexual orientation, “patrons and pensions,” musical performances, Handel’s finances, and his health, while at the same time taking on his fellow scribes with sections titled “When Biographers Fight” and “Plot Types and Biographical Story-Telling.”

For example, Hunter questions the long-held claim that Handel’s oratorios — Judas Maccabaeus, in particular — depended on the support of the Jews living in London at the time, asking: “Who were the Jews who attended performances of Handel’s works and subscribed to his publications? Did Jews think that Handel supported them? Was it only on commercial grounds that Handel was concerned about the absence of Jews from his audience, as one librettist reported? To what extent did the presence of Jews affect the way he and his librettists crafted their entertainments?”

Hunter’s answer is typically blunt and revealing. He begins by estimating that “perhaps twenty-six to thirty-nine families had the required wealth” to support Handel’s efforts, and adds further evidence that the influence of the Jews could not have been large, in any event, since performances of the oratorios in the 1740s were usually “on Wednesday and Friday nights. Not only would observant Jews be unwilling to attend on Friday evenings, they would also find Passover a trifle inconvenient!”

David Hunter

David Hunter

One of the more interesting sections deals in depth with the public rehearsal of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks at Vauxhall Gardens in April 1749 that 12,000 people reportedly attended. Hunter debunks this number from a variety of perspectives. One is the actual size of the Gardens, which he gives in feet, inches, and acres, concluding that they could not have physically accommodated so many people.

Another was the problem of transporting such a crowd from London to Vauxhall in time for the performance, citing what seems to have been the mother of all traffic jams, as Hunter colorfully describes: “On the day of the…rehearsal, a near three-hour stoppage on London Bridge was caused by the mass of coaches en route to Vauxhall.” It was, the Penny London Post noted, “a thing not known before in the Memory of Man.” Based on this and other evidence, Hunter convincingly estimates that not 12,000, but “approximately 3,000 people could have been accommodated in the vicinity of the rehearsal.”

Handel’s financial situation is covered in detail, including a section titled “Supposed Bankruptcy and Actual Wealth,” in which we learn that Handel profited greatly from his investments in the slave trade. Hunter also concludes that claims Handel “was the first musician to break free of elite patronage are bogus,” citing the fact that “Handel was cushioned from the dire consequences of the market turning against him thanks to the support of one of the richest families in the land: the Hanoverian monarchs.” As the author succinctly puts it, “The middle-class audience is a chimera.”

There is much more, including sections on Handel’s “Paralysis and Other Health Problems,” “Biographers’ Approaches to Corpulence and Gluttony,” and “An Eating Disorder Diagnosis,” which Hunter dubs “binge eating disorder.” He also believes there is not enough evidence on which to base a definitive conclusion about Handel’s supposed homosexuality.

Hunter concludes the book with an honest observation: “Every biographer has something to say but none, even this one, can have the last word.” This might be true, but the words in this book are well worth reading.

Mark Kroll, professor emeritus at Boston University, is a harpsichordist, fortepianist, scholar, and educator. His publications include editions of the music of Hummel, Geminiani, Avison, and Francesco Scarlatti, and books about the harpsichord, the Beethoven violin sonatas, and Ignaz Moscheles.

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Tafelmusik Concludes Beethoven Journey

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir after performing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony under Bruno Weill. (Photo by Christina Gapic)

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir after performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under Bruno Weill. (Photo by Christina Gapic)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir; Sigrid Plundrich, soprano; Mary-Ellen Nesi, mezzo-soprano; Colin Balzer, tenor; Simon Tischler, bass-baritone; Bruno Weil, conductor
Tafelmusik Media TMK1030CD

By Daniel Hathaway

CD REVIEW — With the release of its recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, compiled from live performances in Koerner Hall at Toronto’s TELUS Centre from February 4-7, 2016, Tafelmusik becomes the first North American period-instrument ensemble to record a complete cycle of the composer’s symphonies. The project, begun in 1998 under German conductor Bruno Weil, marks a landmark in Tafelmusik’s journey from the Baroque period into the 19th century — updating its musical equipment as required.

The usual objective in such projects by period ensembles is to peel away layers of interpretive accretions laid on by conductors and modern orchestras to reveal what Beethoven originally had in mind. Not, of course, “what Beethoven heard,” for his deafness had advanced to the point where he could only discern faint sounds at the Ninth’s unveiling at the Kärtnertor Theatre in Vienna on May 7, 1824. The composer was onstage to set tempos, but the conducting duties were covered by others.

b9-coverStylistically, Weil and Tafelmusik, with artistic director emeritus Jeanne Lamon as leader (concertmaster), have adopted many of the standard period-instrument ensemble practices in the Ninth Symphony: brisk tempos, minimal if any vibrato (except the vocal quartet, which uses plenty), and lean, transparent textures. Listeners accustomed to the warm, plush string sound of modern orchestras may find Tafelmusik’s approach a bit austere. Period wind and brass instruments, though expertly played, can’t quite achieve the razor-sharp intonation of their successors.

Terse motives not joined into longer melodic phrases may also sound dry and vertical to modern ears. And 21st-century auditors who like to feel the stamp of a conductor’s strong interpretation on the canvas of an established work may find Weil’s objectivity a bit underwhelming.

Neither the mysterious opening nor the creepy coda of the first movement receives special attention. In the Scherzo, Weil smooths over Beethoven’s directions that the motive be treated in three-bar and later in four-bar phrases on subsequent appearances. The surprising modulations in the Adagio pass without comment. And there’s little adrenaline in the choral outbursts in the finale: although the tempos are convincing, everything seems reined in and controlled.

Tafelmusik has recorded all nine Beethoven symphonies. (Photo by Sian Richards)

Tafelmusik has recorded all nine Beethoven symphonies. (Photo by Sian Richards)

Balances are at odds: sometimes the excellent chorus sounds buried in the orchestra, elsewhere it dominates. Though there’s much lovely playing, winds don’t achieve the expected blend with strings, and violins often sound tinny. Inner details poke out of the ensemble that you’d never hear from a seat in the theater. And miking is so close that you clearly hear sniffing during the cello and bass recitative.

Tafelmusik’s reputation as an ensemble is distinguished, as is that of its Chamber Choir, led by Ivars Taurins. But somehow, this recording doesn’t accurately mirror the rave reports of critics who were on the ground for the live concerts.

At the end of the 66-minute performance, the audience responds with shouts and whistling. It makes us wish we’d been there to hear the real thing.

Daniel Hathaway founded after three decades as music director at Cleveland’s Trinity Cathedral. He studied historical musicology at Harvard College and Princeton University, and orchestral conducting at Tanglewood, and team teaches Music Criticism at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

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Matthias Maute: Minnesota Maestro

Matthias Maute, shown conducting Ensemble Caprice, makes his debut this week as artistic director of the Bach Society of Minnesota. (Photo by Bill Blackstone)

Matthias Maute, shown conducting Ensemble Caprice, makes his debut this week as artistic director of the Bach Society of Minnesota. (Photo by Bill Blackstone)


By Donald Rosenberg

Matthias Maute hasn’t yet worked with the musicians of the Bach Society of Minnesota, but he’s poised to discover how their artistic chemistry will develop. This week, the admired German-born multiple threat — recorder and baroque flute player, composer, conductor — begins his first season as artistic director of the Twin Cities-based ensemble, one of the oldest Bach societies in America.

Ask Maute about the scope of his new job and he takes you on a breathless ride.

“Artistic director brings you to the highest possible level,” he says, on the phone from Montreal, “and you put the different parts to work and in service for an organization in terms of the most interesting artistic programming, creating the highest energy possible onstage, and really delving into the depths of the music and going to the most extreme situation in concert to create a lively experience.”

The Bach Society of Minnesota is one of the oldest ensembles of its kind in the U.S.

The Bach Society of Minnesota is one of the oldest ensembles of its kind in the U.S.

Keeping things lively has been a constant for Maute. Along with his activities as soloist and member of the baroque ensemble REBEL, he is the founding artistic director of Ensemble Caprice, the Montreal period-instrument ensemble with which he recently embarked on complete Beethoven symphony cycle.

And now Maute, 53, is raring to expand the reach of the Bach Society of Minnesota. He plans to take the organization to national and international levels, starting with the ensemble’s first appearance abroad in 2018 in Montreal with a performance of Bach’s Ascension Oratorio, BW 11, in collaboration with Ensemble Caprice.

In his first seasons with the Bach Society, Maute will explore a healthy sampling of Bach’s canon for orchestra and choir, from cantatas and oratorios — “the B Minor Mass looms at the horizon,” he says — to instrumental works and pieces by other composers.

Paul Boehnke, Maute's predecessor in Minnesota, will continue to perform with the ensemble. (Photo by Brian Boehnke)

Paul Boehnke, Maute’s predecessor in Minnesota, will continue to perform with the ensemble. (Photo by Brian Boehnke)

Maute takes little credit for his inaugural program (Sept. 22, 23, and 25), which largely was devised by his predecessor, Paul Boehnke, the Bach Society’s artistic director for nine seasons. Titled “Alleluja! Cantatas and Motets by the Thomaskantor,” the program includes the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 and a movement from a Bach flute sonata, which Maute will perform with Boehnke, who’ll continue to appear with the ensemble as harpsichordist and organist. Scheduling the movement from the flute sonata “shows a thank-you gesture to Paul, who has really done an incredible job,” says Maute.

The Bach Society was founded at the University of Minnesota in 1932, when students asked faculty member Donald Ferguson to form the choir to sing music by Bach. The volunteer ensemble performed heavier music (Verdi, Mahler) with the Minnesota Orchestra until Thomas Lancaster, Boehnke’s predecessor, reduced the group to 24 professional voices in collaboration with a period-instrument orchestra. Boehnke trimmed the choir further to 12 voices (three on a part) and expanded the repertoire.

“It quickly became apparent to me that there were many people in our audience and among the supporters who were, one might say, rabid Bach fans,” says Boehke. “They would be happy with all Bach all the time. I knew Bach was a hugely important aspect of the identity to the group. But I also knew that if you only do Bach, it ends up narrowing your audience and the variety of things you can do. How I approached it was to say we will do a lot of Bach and things not by Bach that will have clear connection to Bach in some way or another.”

Johann Sebastian Bach as painting by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in 1748.

Johann Sebastian Bach as painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in 1748.

Maute will make such connections with his October program, “In Heaven’s Castle,” a glimpse into the Reformation through music by Bach, Dietrich Buxtehude, Martin Luther, Michael Praetorius, and Heinrich Schütz. The repertoire comprises Bach’s Reformation Cantata (“Eine feste Burg,” BWV 80) and works that demonstrate “how composers reacted to the way to deal with the word and put it into a very favorable musical context, since the Reformation is so intimately related to the word and less based on image,” says Maute. “Bach’s music, since it’s such a visionary way of tacking words to music, reveals parts of our reality worth listening to.”

The season finale, in April, will be Bach’s Easter Oratorio. Maute decided to program the piece because “it’s one of his lesser known oratorios. We all hang onto the Christmas Oratorio and the passions. But both the Easter and Ascension oratorios are incredible. It’s a pity they’re so little performed. Ensemble Caprice performed [the Easter Oratorio], and it turns out that none of musicians or singers had played that piece.”

Maute has been playing music since he was a youngster in Ebingen, Germany, where he took up recorder and violin. His virtuosity as a recorder player was recognized in 1990, when he won first prize in the soloist category at the Early Music Competition in Bruges, Belgium.  Maute’s curiosity eventually led him to work as a conductor with choirs and orchestras and to compose music for recorders and transverse flutes.

Maute became a conductor after performing as recorder player and baroque flutist. (Photo by Gilles Brissette)

Maute became a conductor after performing as recorder player and baroque flutist. (Photo by Gilles Brissette)

As artistic director of the Bach Society, he says he looks forward to forging more collaborations in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, as well as with organizations like his own Ensemble Caprice.

“I’m very aware that Minneapolis and St. Paul are a true gem in that they have a really lively early music scene,” he says. “It bears some resemblance to Montreal. It has the same kind of sparkling environment where many people display their talents by running their own groups and once a year bundle together in a festival, as in Montreal. It’s a perfect match, anyway.”

More than anything, the new man in Minnesota is eager to share his belief that music has transformative powers.

“A concert shouldn’t be something we go to just because we’re civilized people,” says Maute. “When we leave, something has changed in ourselves. That starts with the musicians onstage. I want to see something happen in a concert. That kind of situation I hope people will just love to go for in the Twin Cities. That’s sort of the whole world my work is based on — being exposed to something stronger than yourself and where it takes you. It makes me happy as a musician because it’s a challenge that somehow never ends.”

Donald Rosenberg is editor of EMAg, the Magazine of Early Music America, and author of The Cleveland Orchestra Story: “Second to None.”

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Lislevand Plays De Visée and Corbetta

Norwegian theorbo player and baroque guitar Rolf Lislevand highlights two composers on his new disc. (Caterina di Perri : ECM Records)

Norwegian theorbo player and baroque guitarist Rolf Lislevand highlights two composers on his new disc. (Caterina di Perri : ECM Records)

La Mascarade
Rolf Lislevand, theorbo and baroque guitar
ECM New Series 2288

By Benjamin Dunham

CD REVIEW — In 2012, the music of Robert de Visée (c. 1650-1725) was in the air. Three outstanding lutenists—Toyohiko Satoh, Krishnasol Jiménez, and Rolf Lislevand—faced microphones that year to record tracks by the French composer and performer who worked at the court of Versailles. Two of the lutenists saw their results released in 2013, but Lislevand’s sampling of de Visée and the music of his putative teacher, Francesco Corbetta (c. 1615-1681), has waited until this year to become available. Each CD has its special virtues: Satoh’s because this eminent performer and teacher is playing a 1610 Lorenz Greiff lute that was converted into an 11-course baroque lute in 1673, and Jiménez’s because this gifted Mexican player reveals the special qualities of a 1679 guitar by Antonio Stradivari that had been restored to its original playing condition.

La Mascarade cover 400In “La Mascarade,” the Norwegian artist Lislevand gives us a personal statement that mixes not only two composers but also two instruments: theorbo for the music of de Visée (mostly taken from the 1699 Vaudry de Saizenay manuscript) and baroque guitar for the music of Corbetta. On both instruments, Lislevand is a player of remarkable fluidity and nuance. The key to his program is contained in its title, “La Mascarade,” which the artist in his notes defines as “not the true face…Nothing is to be taken literally. Everything is a game of masks. If an identity is in danger of being revealed through too close a contact, the masked face withdraws in order to maintain its secret.”

That is a lot to ask of a casual listener who is trying to understand the character of these two composers. De Visée was a multi-threat musician, serving as a vocalist and player of both plucked and bowed instruments for Louis XIV and holding the title of “Guitar Master of the King” under Louis XV. The older Corbetta was more of a specialist, being known widely as a virtuoso on the baroque guitar. After establishing his reputation in Italy, he visited Spain and The Netherlands and was active in both Paris and London, serving Charles II of England in exile and after the Restoration.

Lislevand’s title track comes about halfway through the disc, and it begins a series of pieces, whether by de Visée or Corbetta, that seem to mirror each other in their melodic gestures. It helps that in alternating between the two composers, Corbetta’s music is played on the guitar, whose range and sonority is so different from the theorbo. But this distinction is somewhat blurred at the end when Lislevand closes with two movements from de Visée’s 1686 collection for guitar, one played on the guitar (along with Lislevand’s improvised and atmospheric “intro” and “exit”) and one on the theorbo.

I felt on firmer ground with the Jiménez disc (Brilliant Classics 94435), with complete suites by de Visée played on a notable historical instrument—the same way I felt when listening to Aldo Abreu’s extraordinary traversal of the Telemann solo fantasias on historical recorders in the collection of Friedrich von Huene. But others may warmly embrace Lislevand’s intriguing presentation, with its diverting juxtapositions and reflections.

Former EMAg editor Benjamin Dunham has reviewed recordings for The Washington Post and Musical America and currently serves as the classical music reviewer for The Sentinel in Marion, MA.

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