Sunday, May 4, 2014

Indianapolis Early Music presents Rook in instrumental music of the 16th and 17th centuries.

At home in today's Chicago (background), Rook focuses on ancient instrumental music.
To get one thing straight, Rook didn't name its forthcoming recording "Eleven" after Indianapolis' new professional soccer team.

They're from Chicago,  and the quirky album title indicates they're after something new — beyond 10 — like the doltish guitar player in the classic mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap," showing off his new instrument with a volume dial that goes up to 11: "It's louder," he explains

The four-man ensemble, sometimes supplemented by cornetto player Bill Baxtresser, made its Indianapolis debut Sunday afternoon at the Indiana Landmarks Center, presenting the annual  preview concert for this year's Indianapolis Early Music Festival, the 48th (June 20-July 15).

They aren't necessarily louder, even though (counting Baxtresser) two of them play forebears of today's brass instruments. The other borderline "it's louder" player is Paul Von Hoff, whose trombone is a modern copy of a Nuremberg instrument from 1632; he also played slide trumpet. Rook is completed by Jakob Hansen, violin; Jeremy David Ward, bass violin (or violone); and Mark Shuldiner, harpsichord.

When it comes to names, any significance behind calling itself Rook is denied, by Ward at least, who said "Rook" was short and catchy and seemed just the thing for these early-music practitioners to make their way in the world, playing instrumental pieces from the 16th and 17th centuries.  Only as an afterthought did they start touting the name's derivation from the chess piece also called a castle. One of the most prominent composers for Rook's instrumental combination of the period it specializes in was Dario Castello (c. 1590-1638), whose last name means "castle."

The Italian composer's first book of sonatas was published in 1621, and if Nos. 4 and 11 are a typical indication, the mercurial tempo shifts, high-spirited question-and-answer phrases and surprising rhythmic variety suggest they would be ideal for productions of "The Tempest," Shakespeare's music-stuffed late romance that premiered about a decade earlier.

Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre  is scheduled to present its "Tempest" in White River State Park this summer, but I don't presume to recommend musical selections here; and I'm leaving aside the play's wonderful songs, such as "Full fathom five thy father lies." It's just that Castello sonatas, as well played as Rook plays them, would seem apt for use by Ariel's spirits to beguile the castaways on Prospero's dream-island.

Also on the program were a couple of pieces by Bartolome de Selma y Salaverde: "Canzon No. 11 for Bass and Soprano," featuring trombone and violone in vigorous dialogue, and an improvisatory piece on a madrigal of his time (c. 1595-1638), focusing to an intense degree on the latter instrument. Ward brought the work off with the flair of a guitarist able to dial up to "11" without flailing.

One of the salutary lessons of this concert was to hear a Giovanni Gabrieli canzona played with a sound he might have recognized, instead of in the ringing tones of modern brass instruments. His Canzon "La Spiritata" allowed us to savor the compatibility of cornetto and trombone with string instruments and harpsichord, its bright energy never pushed toward today's blare.

This is a repertoire that is either misrepresented or ignored in general, so Rook's attention to it helps protect whatever spiritual monarch rules over old music interpreted in today's terms, but with conscientious respect for the originals. If chess imagery doesn't work for you, let's just say Rook is indeed something to crow about.