Tag Archive | concert

Agave Baroque, Etc.

Summer is here! What have I been up to since spring break, besides defending my dissertation? Well, I can safely say I’ve finished my doctorate; I graduate tomorrow! I also went to the LA Times Festival of Books and YALLWEST, which were fun, but I wonder whether I’m starting to get author paneled out… I went on a couple of top secret trips to the Upper Midwest; sooner or later the outcome of those trips is likely to become clear.

In between said trips, Isabelle and I went to a wonderful concert at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, which is part of UCLA but is located in the West Adams neighborhood. The Clark houses a rare book and manuscript collection and hosts UCLA’s Center for 17th- & 18th-Century Studies’ chamber music concert series. We had actually been to the library before, for a performance combining piano pieces and personal storytelling. This time, the performers were Agave Baroque, a San Francisco-based ensemble, and the countertenor Reginald Mobley. Apparently it was the first time a singer had ever participated in this concert series.

The Clark Library (check out that theorbo!)

The program was devoted almost exclusively to the extended Bach family. I’m a big Baroque music fan, so I enjoyed the whole concert, but I was especially excited for the penultimate piece, the chaconne “Mein Freund ist mein” from the cantata Meine Freundin, du bist schön by Johann Christoph Bach. I had stumbled upon this piece on Youtube, searching for music by J. C. Bach, as one does, and I loved it. (Amusingly, for the title of the cantata Google Translate gives “my girlfriend you are beautiful.”) I should’ve realized sooner the text was from the Song of Songs. The organist told us the cantata had been composed for a Bach family wedding, but it was a Lutheran wedding, so the piece was in G minor. In any case, it was as wonderful as I’d hoped to hear the chaconne performed live. I was surprised to understand some German I had never caught before, just listening to a recording.

The title given in the program for the final piece, also by J. C. Bach, wasn’t familiar to me. It was “Es ist nun aus mit meinem Leben” (Google Translate: “it’s over with my life now”). The organist said the song was about death, but it was happy (can anyone say shape note?). As soon as Reginald Mobley began to sing, though, I recognized the piece, which I knew as “Welt, gute Nacht.” It’s very beautiful and soothing, and I was delighted to hear it performed live too.

The next evening, I got to see Rachel Hartman (of whom I am unabashedly a fan) and Fran Wilde at Children’s Book World, the bookstores where I held my Los Angeles release parties. I’d enjoyed Fran Wilde’s Updraft, and she was touring for her newest book, an MG novel with a protagonist named Eleanor! She also had a stamp of a witch ball, which she was using in signing books. It was lovely to see Rachel in person for the second time and catch up a little. She was promoting her extraordinary Tess of the Road.

At the end of May, Isabelle and I went to the LA Zine Fest at the historic Helms Bakery in Culver City (the official baker of the 1932 Olympic Games). We discovered some new-to-us zinesters, saw artist Maggie Chiang in the flesh, ran into Jackie Lam, whom we knew from the West LA Burrito Project, and donated some zines to other branches of the LA Public Library.

Speaking of zines and the public library, last Sunday we went back to the zine workshop at the West Los Angeles Regional Library. I kept working on my latest zine, which I hope to finish and reveal soon, and we found that some of our previous zines were now on shelves in the library’s collection!

Aliénor la reine

A music typewriter on display in the music building

The UCLA Early Music Ensemble’s spring concert, Ex Tempore: Improvisations on Historical Musics, was this past weekend, and Isabelle and I went. Most of the concerts of theirs I’ve attended have been in the rotunda of Powell Library, but this one was in the organ studio in the music building. It’s a very intimate space, dominated by a pipe organ that sits on a dais. The performers were right in front of the audience; no one was more than four rows away. Besides the pipe organ, there was another organ behind us, as well as an upright piano and a harpsichord in the corner. This isn’t counting the harpsichord and the small organ-on-wheels that were on stage and actually played in the concert.

There’s apparently a tuba and euphonium ensemble on campus, and they were featured in a couple of pieces. I especially liked the arrangement of Monteverdi’s “Ecco mormorar l’onde” for two euphoniums, one trombone, and two tubas. The sound made the whole studio vibrate, and it was like being enveloped in the ocean. That madrigal was one of the ones I learned for the Jouyssance singalong last year.

I also really liked “My Lief is Faren in Londe” (I was surprised by how comprehensible the rest of the text was after the fairly foreign-looking first line; it turns out the song is in Middle English). It was fun to hear Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major for lute on classical guitar, and the modern harmonies of the arrangement of Scarborough Fair were compelling.

The most delightful piece for me, though, was “Stella splendens in monte,” from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, a 14th century manuscript. It began with a sort of duet for symphony (a kind of early hurdy-gurdy) and musa bagpipe. The piper is the musician who played the musette at the hurdy-gurdy concert I went to my first year of grad school. Our paths have crossed multiple times over the years because he also sings shape note and Georgian music (yes, it’s all one cult). In fact, he just started coming to Datvebis Gundi’s rehearsals, and the first time he came he had the musa bagpipe and showed it to us! This particular instrument is unusual in that the drone can change notes (just to one other note).

Anyway, as the symphony and bagpipe played, I realized I recognized the tune as the Tri Yann song “Arthur Plantagenest.” Yes, this happened the last time I went to an Early Music Ensemble concert too. “Arthur Plantagenest” is about Arthur’s untimely end, but the song begins with his grandmother, Aliénor la reine, i.e. Eleanor of Aquitaine. Here’s a version of “Stella splendens in monte,” and here’s Tri Yann’s “Arthur Plantagenest,” from the album Portraits.

Mopey Chipmunk Vol. 1

Lately I’ve been busy linguisticking and Being Cultured (I hope). In mid-April, having lived in Los Angeles for almost five years, I finally went to my first LA Philharmonic concert. It was a matinée, and beforehand I had a bowl of ramen at Daikokuya in Little Tokyo. It was the day before they closed for a weeks-long ramen study trip to Japan. After lunch I walked to Disney Hall and found my seat in Orchestra East. An older couple sat beside me, and the wife asked me whether that was an organ behind the stage. I said yes. Then she and her husband began discussing how the audience skewed old, and one of them said young people couldn’t afford to go to the orchestra. (Um, so what was I doing there? But actually I bought my ticket with a gift certificate from my parents–thanks, Mom and Dad!) Then the other said if young people could afford to go to Coachella, they could afford to go to the orchestra.

The first half of the concert was the world premiere of Pollux, by Esa-Pekka Salonen, former conductor of the LA Phil, followed by Edgard Varèse’s Amériques. I enjoyed listening to Pollux, but Amériques sometimes just sounded like…noise. There were fourteen percussionists, one or more of whom played the siren. There was also apparently a lion’s roar, and I was disappointed not to have picked it out. Also somewhere in the first half something seemed to be going on in the oboe section. Was there a reed issue…? It’s vaguely stressful to identify what you think is a musician’s minor crisis on stage during a concert. I didn’t detect any problems in the performance, though.

The second half of the concert, and the reason I’d chosen it, was Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, a symphony I played in community orchestra in high school and with my college orchestra. I know it very well. Gustavo Dudamel conducted it without a score, and it was wonderful. After a couple of ovations, Dudamel returned and led the orchestra in an encore. As the concert hall was emptying, the woman next to me asked if I knew the piece, adding that it was so familiar. I said I didn’t know it and didn’t mention that it hadn’t even sounded familiar to me. Later, I found a concert review which identified the encore as “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which I’m pretty sure I didn’t know.

Two days later, Isabelle and I went to one of The Moth‘s live storytelling events at a nightclub in Silver Lake (I don’t think I’d ever been to a nightclub before, but also, it was only 7:00pm…). The theme of the evening was Mail. Attendees who wanted to tell a story put their names in a tote bag, and ten storytellers were drawn. Each person had five minutes (with a little grace) to tell their story. Three teams of judges were chosen from the audience, and after each story they held up placards with their score on a ten-point scale. It was like the Olympics or something.

Isabelle’s and my favorite story also garnered the highest score and therefore won the night. It was told by a writer from New York. One winter day she dropped her keys, including her mailbox key, through a subway grate. This was disastrous because it was the very day she was expecting to hear back from the second MFA program she had applied to. She had been rejected from the first one, though with a personal e-mail from Colum McCann (!), who told her her work was great and she should keep writing. She, however, believed that if she didn’t get into the other program she would give up on writing. (There was backstory on her feverishly writing weird stories in a corner of her apartment when she couldn’t sleep.) So she picked up her kids from school, and then they returned to the subway grate with bubblegum and magnets and proceeded to fish for the lost keys. And they got them back! And when she opened her mailbox, an acceptance from the MFA program was waiting for her. She told this much better than I just did, which is why she won.

So that was my cultured April. Now our feature presentation: I got my wisdom teeth out (technically two wisdom teeth and two second molars, except they left in one wisdom tooth) at the end of March, just before spring break. I had joked I was going to spend break being a mopey chipmunk. That sounded like a great zine title, which led to this:

Early Spring Break

It’s not my spring break yet, but my mother was in town recently, so we went on some excursions. We heard the UCLA Early Music Ensemble’s winter concert, Bach? What Bach?: A Program of Early Music from Germany. They sang two selections from Carmina Burana, and one of them, “Bacche, bene,” was very familiar. I knew I’d heard the melody before, and I was pretty sure it had been in a Tri Yann song, but I didn’t know how I was going to figure out which one. Of course it was going to bother me until I figured it out. But it turns out Googling “Tri Yann Carmina Burana” gets you what you want! The song is “Brian Boru” from the album Portraits.

We went to the Huntington, as per tradition, and saw lots of camellias, as well as a heron, some hawks, some woodpeckers in palm trees, and other birds.

My pavilion

Heron in the Japanese Garden

Later in the week, we stopped by the ocean on the Pacific Coast Highway and watched the waves. At our first stop, I saw what I think was a seal in the water! I may have been mistaken, but I’d rather think it was actually a seal. At our second stop, we saw lots of sandpipers.

Bernstein, Orff, Arbeau, Susato

Last week, two professors in my department were giving away their tickets to the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s Sunday concert at Disney Hall, and after wavering for an afternoon, I snagged them and invited my friend Dustin to the concert. I had been to Disney Hall in downtown LA before but had yet to hear a performance there (I’m starting my fifth year of grad school and still haven’t seen the LA Phil!). Plus the program was Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, and I liked the parts of each that I was familiar with.

Before the concert, we had ramen at Daikokuya in Little Tokyo and then went to the mochi ice cream place, where I got a scoop of red bean ice cream. Then we walked to Disney Hall. I’d never seen the inside of the concert hall, and I thought it was pretty! Mostly for the majestic pipe organ, with its pipes flaring and jutting out at many angles, all dappled in the blue and gold lighting.

Disney Hall 2

I knew the second movement of the Chichester Psalms because a countertenor at my high school sang it. Here, the soloist was a thirteen-year-old boy soprano. It was great to hear a live performance of that, and I also liked the other two movements. There was an extended cello solo (or perhaps cello ensemble?) in the third movement.

For Carmina Burana, the LA Children’s Chorus (in red vests) joined the Master Chorale, and the orchestra got bigger. Dustin and I knew the somewhat ubiquitous “O Fortuna,” but not the rest, and again, I liked all of it! Carmina Burana (maybe just “O Fortuna”?) was one of the pieces I studied in music listening, and I remembered the texts were written by medieval German monks, but I didn’t realize the themes were basically drinking and love. There were surtitles in English, and some of the translations were quite comical. There was also this tenor solo for which the text was the lament of a swan who’s been cooked and is being served up and sees the diners’ teeth approaching. The tenor really hammed it up. Also, the soprano soloist turned out to be the singer who played Daiyu in the world premiere of the opera Dream of the Red Chamber, which I saw in San Francisco just over a year ago!

It was a splendid concert, and I’m glad I’ve finally heard a performance at Disney Hall.

And since this is a music post, I’m going to squeeze in another musical connection discovery: I’ve talked about Arbeau’s pavane “Belle, qui tiens ma vie” before, and how it appears in Peter Warlock’s “Capriol Suite.” Well, the other day I was listening to a recording of Tylman Susato’s Danserye and heard something familiar in an allemande… It’s the first piece in this recording, and if you’ve listened to “Belle, qui tiens ma vie” enough you’ll recognize the first two lines. After that it’s different.

The PDR: Samsara

Back in August, my friend Michael told me about a friend of a friend who hosted musical salons/informal concerts in her apartment. He had been persuaded to perform at the next one and was planning to sing the Iron & Wine song “Naked As We Came” while accompanying himself on guitar. He thought it was the sort of event I’d enjoy and invited me to come. A few days later, he remarked that “Naked As We Came” had a subtle harmony line on the refrain. Would I like to sing it with him at the salon? I said sure.

We had one rehearsal after Georgian chorus one day, and then that weekend was the performance. The salon (that’s what I’m calling it) is called the PDR (for Playa del Rey, where the hosts live), and each PDR has a theme. This one’s theme was samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth.

I find the concept of a salon like this really appealing. I used to host music parties for my friends where we’d get together and play strange instrumental arrangements (flute, viola, cello, piano/bells) of classical and not-so-classical pieces I liked. These days, I host singing parties where we sing shape note tunes, folksongs, and rounds in two- to four-part harmony. The PDR is more performance-oriented, and the participants are mostly fairly serious, even professional, musicians, but the host explained at the beginning of the evening how her goal was to create a low-stress performance venue where musicians could play for a friendly audience and anyone was welcome to participate.

The opener was Monti’s “Csárdás,” performed by a violinist accompanied by the host on one of her two grand pianos. When I heard the title, I wondered if it was going to be that “Csárdás,” and it was. Next a flautist played Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” also accompanied. I’d thought “Vocalise” had been written for cello (silly me); it turns out it was originally for soprano, with no text, and has been transcribed for every instrument imaginable. This was followed by a pair of piano pieces by Grieg, “Homesickness” and “Homeward.”

We were up next! I perched on a chair next to Michael, who was on a piano bench. “Naked As We Came” is a pretty short song, two verses, each followed by the refrain, and I only had to sing my harmony line on the refrain. Michael was doing all the rest, including the pretty guitar playing. The host thought it was the first time there’d ever been singing not accompanied by piano at the PDR, and we were also the only non-classical piece of the night. It went pretty well, and people seemed to enjoy it!

Next someone played a series of Beethoven bagatelles. In the meantime, I noticed that a musician who’d come in late had unpacked an instrument from what I’d thought was a cello case. It was not a cello but a viola da gamba! And he was next. He played “Death” and “Lyfe” by Tobias Hume, an English (Scottish, actually) composer and mercenary who wrote music for viola da gamba when he wasn’t fighting for Sweden. That’s what the viola da gambist told us, anyway. Before performing, he showed us the sheet music he was playing off of. It looked like a facsimile of the original, very old notation that vaguely resembled tablatures.

After the Hume, his girlfriend joined him with a Baroque violin to play a violin sonata by Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, a composer I had in fact heard of thanks to this very nerdy activity I did in high school called music listening. (My team made it to the state championship match every year, and when I was a senior we won.) Viola da Gambist told us Jacquet de la Guerre became a musician in the court of Louis XIV at the age of five (later Wikipedia browsing suggested she performed for the king at five but became a court musician only later). Anyway, the sonata was beautiful.

Lastly, someone sang three art songs while accompanying himself on piano, which was quite impressive. He sang Schubert’s “In Frühling,” Fauré’s “Les Berceaux,” and Mozart’s “Abendempfindung”; I especially liked the Fauré (chanson over lieder, I guess).

After the concert, I went to talk to Viola da Gambist and Baroque Violinist about Jacquet de la Guerre and the violinist’s instrument. I told them I was a cellist and was envious of people who played the viola da gamba, and Viola da Gambist told me he knew where I could get a viola da gamba for free. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not.

Later, I was talking to Baroque Violinist again. She had lived in Boston all her life, and it turned out she’d been in youth orchestra with someone I knew in college. She also told me Viola da Gambist’s sister was a fiddler, and I put two and two together and realized she was my favorite local contra dance fiddler! Small world.

By this time, some people had left, and those who remained were chatting about Handel’s operas and whether they’d been trained to be better at memorization or sight reading. Then Viola da Gambist regaled us with his take on Italian Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo’s life (Gesualdo was another composer I’d studied in music listening). According to Viola da Gambist, Gesualdo had discovered his wife having an affair and killed her and her lover. Thereafter, he lived under house arrest. He wrote madrigal after madrigal for his live-in singers, and because he listened to nothing but his own madrigals being performed back for him, they got weirder and weirder (chromatic and such).

Just before we left, Viola da Gambist showed me the Hume music and tried to explain to me how the tablatures worked. I asked him whether he’d been serious about the free viola da gamba, and he told me about the Viola da Gamba Society of America or somesuch, which likes getting instruments into the hands of eager would-be viola da gambists. He even said he was looking for a student…but I did not rise to the bait, however much I’d like to play viola da gamba. I have my hands pretty full with the cello, the fiddle, and the hammered dulcimer, none of which I play frequently enough.

Huun Huur Tu and DakhaBrakha

Last Friday, I went to a concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall featuring the Tuvan throat singing ensemble Huun Huur Tu and the Ukrainian “ethno chaos” quartet DakhaBrakha. I went with several current and former UCLA linguistics professors, most of whom sing in Datvebis Gundi, and we started out the evening at the pre-concert Ukrainian block party on Royce Terrace. The Firebird Balalaika Ensemble was playing, occasionally accompanying Ukrainian dancers, and there were free potato piroshki. The Firebird Ensemble included balalaika, alto balalaika, domra (a sort of mandolin), kontrabass balalaika (giant! with endpin!), and bayan (a type of accordion with buttons on both sides and no keyboard). They played, among other things, Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás. While listening to the balalaikas, I spotted in the audience my former roommate, an economics Ph.D. student, and a local contra dance caller and her husband, who plays in a local contra dance band.

After the block party, we moved into the Royce concert hall, which I’d never seen before. It has a beautiful coffered ceiling. This is the hall where I will graduate in 2018. Despite having bought my ticket separately, I ended up directly in front of the other linguists, in the second row. Huun Huur Tu was on first.

The first time I heard Tuvan throat singing, I was a freshman in college. One of my professors, K. David Harrison, had done fieldwork on Tuvan and arranged for the ensemble Alash to perform on campus. I remember going primarily because I wanted to hear a person sing two notes at once. In this I was disappointed because it turns out the second note in overtone singing has a very different quality and almost doesn’t even sound like it’s coming from the person singing. Still, I enjoyed the songs and the traditional instruments and the unusual singing timbres, and when I heard Huun Huur Tu would be performing at UCLA, I was eager to see them.

Like Alash, Huun Huur Tu has four members, all men. They played a variety of drums, percussion instruments, strummed and bowed stringed instruments, and a long end-blown flute. I’d love to have a horse-headed, two-stringed igil! They are not a purely traditional ensemble but incorporate modern and global influences into their music (though I don’t know enough to be able to tease these out). Different singers demonstrated different styles of throat singing. I don’t know if I’m misremembering, but the overtones Huun Huur Tu produced struck me as much more audible than Alash’s. Maybe I was just better prepared to appreciate throat singing this time around. It was really impressive. And I actually recognized one of the songs they performed, Kongurei, I think because Alash played it and I later listened to recordings of it on Youtube. It has a beautiful melody. Another song Huun Huur Tu performed, which they told us was about the forest, featured a lot of bird calls and whistles and the like. When Sayan Bapa rubbed the ends of his guitar strings near the bridge to make a squeaking sound, it reminded me of learning to make animal sounds (woodpecker, cow, rooster, mouse) on my cello at Suzuki Camp when I was a kid. In another song about a horse, Chiraa-Khoor, there were a lot of horse sound effects (clopping, neighs, whuffles).

At intermission, we talked a bit about the mechanics of overtone singing (because linguists love talking about harmonics, formants, and the vocal tract). I think a couple of department members have already tried teaching themselves to do it. Then we settled in for the second half of the concert.

DakhaBrakha consists of three women and one man. The women wear white wedding dresses, tall hats of black fur (they kind of look like Buckingham Palace guard hats, but I guess they’re a little different), and abundant bead necklaces. They had even more instruments than Huun Huur Tu: drums, rattles, thunder tube (I think?), accordions, piano, cello, and something they called a zgaleyka, which I think is the same thing as a zhaleika, which is a small reed instrument with a bell made of horn. The cellist is self-taught. She definitely didn’t play her instrument like a classically trained cellist would, but she was adept at her own technique. The top face of her cello is painted or something; it’s covered with woven rug-like patterns in reds and oranges.

When they took the stage, the man announced, “We are DakhaBrakha from free Ukraine.” Their music involved a lot of intense percussion and the three women singing close harmonies. It alternated between gentle and energetic and wild. Some of the singing reminded me of Balkan singing. A couple of their songs were in English, though for the first one it took me a long time to figure that out. They played two encores, and at the end of their performance, I’m pretty sure I heard the man say, “Stop Putin.” Then he unfurled a Ukrainian flag.

It was a good evening. I’d see both groups again.

In other news, today is the one year anniversary of the publication of Sparkers!

Evgeny Tonkha at the Mojica Hacienda

A week and a half ago, I was lucky enough to attend a cello concert in a unique setting. I went as the guest of a fellow student in my department who is also an Oxford alumnus; the concert was an Oxford alumni network outing (though not exclusively–most of the people in the audience weren’t Oxford folk). It was held at the Mojica Hacienda, a house on an estate in a lush and secluded neighborhood of Santa Monica, near the mountains and the ocean. The house belonged to tenor-turned-priest José Mojica and was apparently a hangout for the Gershwin brothers, Hollywood stars, and Albert Einstein, among others. The grounds are maze-like, with really lovely gardens: fuchsias and hollyhocks, water lilies in the pond, a wall draped in Thunbergia alata (yes, I had to look that up).

We took a look in the small chapel, which had many small plaques expressing gratitude to the Virgen de Guadalupe or some saint for a miracle or for recovery from an illness or an injury. They had texts in Spanish and painted depictions of whatever had befallen the individual in question (one showed a person being thrown from a horse). The house was filled with tapestries and silver and had a miniature movie theater in addition to the specially built concert room where (we were again reminded) the Gershwins had played. It was an intimate space, reminding me a bit of a Syriac church in Paris where I attended another cello concert years ago.

The concert itself was great. The cellist was Evgeny Tonkha, and he played a variety of short pieces, half of which I’d played myself in some form or another and so was familiar with. The program included the prelude, sarabande, and gigue from Bach’s third suite for unaccompanied cello, the first movement of Schubert’s arpeggione sonata, an arrangement of Sibelius’s Valse Triste, Bartók’s Romanian Dances, a modern composition entitled Intro Version (the composer, Anna Drubich, was at the concert), and finally arrangements of a Gershwin prelude and Rhapsody in Blue. Tonkha’s spiccato was impressive.

The one disappointment was that the program was supposed to include this chaconne by Giuseppe Colombi, supposedly the first piece ever written for cello. I’d never heard of the piece or the composer and was looking forward to hearing it, but for whatever reason Tonkha didn’t play it.

Afterward, there were refreshments in the garden, and my colleague and I met a few other Oxford alumni who were all now also at UCLA. One of them told us a story about his friends who punted to London in their white ties after the Magdalen Ball. It took them three days. Also, it turned out the reason the concert was an Oxford alumni outing at all was because the person in charge of the Mojica Hacienda’s classical music programming had been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford (he also bore an uncanny resemblance to Gérard Depardieu).

Anyway, as you read this I may have just arrived in Oxford myself! I’ll be in England through the end of June.

All About Bach

Last Saturday, I attended the UCLA Early Music Ensemble’s fall concert. A friend of mine from high school who now also goes to grad school in Los Angeles came with me. The theme of the concert was “All About Bach.” It was, in fact, an all J.S. Bach program, except that Johann Kuhnau (Bach’s predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig) and Johann Christoph Bach (a cousin of Bach’s) had a cameo apiece.

The concert was held in the rotunda of the Powell Library, a beautiful building I don’t visit nearly often enough because it’s the undergraduate library (the graduate research library, meanwhile, is architecturally uninspiring). There’s pretty brickwork and mosaics and owls carved into the balustrades of the staircases.

I listen to a lot of Baroque music, especially these days (listening to Part I of Handel’s Messiah on repeat is sure to get me through the last grueling weeks of the term, right?), but it’s so much better to hear it performed live. It renews my enthusiasm for familiar pieces. Everyone in the ensemble was performing on period instruments, and at the intermission we were invited to go up and look at them. The Baroque cellos were beautifully crafted: one of them seemed to have a Templar cross inlaid in the black wood of the fingerboard, and the other’s scroll was carved into a lion’s head. And all the string players had Baroque bows.

Something I learned at the concert was that Bach wrote a secular cantata about a father and his coffee-crazed daughter. We were treated to the daughter’s ode to coffee (“Ah! how sweet coffee tastes! / Lovelier than a thousand kisses”), and even if I couldn’t relate, it was amusing (and featured a dazzling flute part!).

The ensemble performed some perennial favorites, including the second movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, the third movement of the double violin concerto in D minor, and the entire Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The piece by Johann Christoph Bach was entirely new to me, though (so was the composer, for that matter). It was a “death aria” entitled “Mit Weinen hebt sich’s an” (“It begins with weeping”). The text is basically about how every stage of life is miserable. Seriously, looking over the English translation in the program notes, I thought it had the makings of a shape note text: “Old age approaches, the sorrowful years, / that holds no pleasure” (cf. “And if to eighty we arrive, / We’d rather sigh and groan than live” from “Exit” in The Sacred Harp). I expected there to be a turning point at the end, something along the lines of Weeping, weeping, weeping…But! Jesus/heaven! but there isn’t really. I guess that part was assumed by the German Lutherans singing and hearing this piece. All that said, the music is gorgeous.

In other news, I just turned in the first draft of Book 2 to my editor. It took me about eight and a half months to write it and do one hasty revision of it. I have never written a book that fast in my life. Now I’m experiencing manuscript withdrawal. It’s probably for the best, since now I can devote myself wholly to end-of-term projects, but I miss my manuscript…

The Hurdy-Gurdy Concert

So remember how I said I might blog about hurdy-gurdies? That was mostly a joke. Until now. Because on Sunday I went to a concert featuring this most splendiferous instrument. It was a performance by the ensemble Les Surprises Baroques, and the theme was “The Muse of the Countryside: A Rustic Divertissement.” The concert description is pretty entertaining:

The French aristocracy of the late baroque era has been characterized as a volatile bunch of scheming manipulators, cutthroat back-stabbers, hedonists, and Libertines…and connoisseurs of every well-developed fine art. Their cynical, and often appalling, proclivities are almost belied by their infatuation with an idealized vision of a mythical Arcadia, populated by innocent nymphs and shepherdesses and their swains.

The French embrace of all things pastoral included the hurdy-gurdy, the magnificent droning and singing instrument that had been a fixture in European peasant life since medieval times.

Join well-known hurdy-gurdy guest artist Curtis Berak and Les Surprises Baroques for a ramble through this bucolic soundscape, as imagined and realized by such composers as Boismortier, Corrette, Marais, and Rameau.

IMG_3179

This is not a photo from the concert but a picture I took of a hurdy-gurdy player in the Harvard T Station in October 2010.

The concert was wonderful. The musicians played period instruments, including a beautifully painted harpsichord with the phrase “Sic transit gloria mundi” inscribed on the underside of the lid. Most of my exposure to the hurdy-gurdy (or vielle à roue–wheel viol–in French) has actually been through French Canadian traditional music, so I was surprised to learn that in the 18th century the French aristocracy was quite enamored of the hurdy-gurdy, so much so that it was a court instrument and noblewomen learned to play it. Personally, I found it odd to hear it played accompanied by harpsichord or as part of an ensemble that also included strings, recorder, and oboe.

Mr. Berak, the guest hurdy-gurdy player, explained how the instrument works. Most of what he said I already knew, but not the part about the buzzing bridge. Basically, one of the drone strings has a bridge (kind of like the bridge of a violin or cello) with one end free, and if you turn the crank that rotates the wheel fast enough, that free end buzzes. You can crank in a way that allows you to add rhythmic buzzes on top of the drones and the melody played with the keys. I think I must have heard that buzz before and assumed it was just the way one of the drone strings was vibrating.

In addition to the hurdy-gurdy, another beloved instrument of the 18th century French court was introduced as a surprise after the intermission (I guess that’s why they’re called Les Surprises Baroques?). This was the musette, which is a small bagpipe and thus another instrument with drones. The hurdy-gurdy and musette played a duet, and they were also both featured in other pieces.

According to the program, Mr. Berak has the largest collection of antique hurdy-gurdies in the United States (I’m not sure how stiff the competition is, though). Between two pieces, he also brought out two large portraits of aristocratic women posing with their hurdy-gurdies. These were reproductions, but they were still displayed in massive gilt frames. Mr. Berak regaled us with his theory that one of the paintings depicted Maria Leszczyńska, the Polish queen of Louis XV of France, and that the other depicted her daughter, the princess Marie Adélaïde, who was known to have played the hurdy-gurdy.

Hurdy Gurdy Lady

I’m 99% sure this is the purported portrait of Marie Adélaïde a reproduction of which Mr. Berak showed us. Image from here.

Furthermore, he suggested that one of the hurdy-gurdies from his own collection, which he showed us, might actually be the very one shown in the portrait of Marie Adélaïde. Not only that, but there was evidence of wax seals having been scraped off the side of the wooden keybox–maybe during the French Revolution! Mr. Berak’s hurdy-gurdy and the one in the painting above did bear a decent resemblance to one another, but frankly I think these appealing stories are fueled more by fanciful speculation than real evidence. That’s not to say they weren’t enthralling!

Finally, one of the pieces Les Surprises Baroques performed with hurdy-gurdy was the Concerto Comique no. 3 “Margoton,” by Michel Corrette. Apparently these concertos comiques were meant to follow operas because audiences weren’t ready to go home yet. They were also based on popular songs. The ensemble’s artistic director told us that they had tracked down the text of the song “Margoton,” and she summarized it for us. As she was describing the story, which tells of a young woman who falls into a well and the three horsemen who come riding by and ask what she’ll give them if they rescue her, I realized it was essentially identical to that of another song I know, “La Ziguezon” (“M’en va t’à la fontaine”) by the French Canadian group La Bottine Souriante. No coincidence, I’m sure.