Sunday, September 6, 2020

IndyBaroque launches its season with music roughly contemporary with European settlement here

A special anthology in my decades-old LP collection is the Smithsonian's "Music from the Age of Jefferson." I had just played the record again a few days before attending the opening of IndyBaroque's 2020-21 season Friday night at the IndyFringe Pocket Park.
IndyBaroque Chamber Players launch a season at Indy Fringe.

The link is an intriguing one in these troubled times, and one must walk a tightrope sometimes defending the establishment and persistence of European culture in the New World. I have no problem with acknowledging that in moral terms: the civilization I most identify with has deep-seated problems. Sure,  I listened without apology or private embarrassment, and read the extensive notes to this recording from the 1970s, but it inevitably springs to mind that the Age of Jefferson, specifically as embodied in the man himself, was sustained in large degree by chattel slavery.

There's no mention of that in the text accompanying the Smithsonian collection, and that omission was not untypical four decades ago. Everyone knew what enabled Thomas Jefferson's lifestyle and the cultivation of its material and even its spiritual health, but only recently has the attention perhaps been overriding, threatening to inter the living good along with its hardly dry bones.

Similarly, as Tom Gerber delivered his oral program notes about music in the New World in the early years of the territory that became Indiana, he took pains to indicate that what became the Hoosier state was certainly not empty of human activity and settlement. It was the homeland of the Miami and several other tribes, gradually marginalized through aggressive settlement, disease, and displacement by treaty or otherwise. The well-assembled program is titled "When Indiana Was Young II," and the series continued Saturday in New Albany and will conclude tonight at the T.C. Steele Historic Site in Brown County.

The program that a quartet of the IndyBaroque Chamber Players is offering this weekend to launch IndyBaroque's 2020-21 season consisted of music that may have been performed in the 18th century by and for European settlers east of here and some who ventured west into our neighborhood. It was presented to the delight of Friday's small, enthusiastic audience without any claims that a little-known aspect of "Hoosier culture" was being brought forward. And perhaps that historical perspective was particularly germane since the European art upon which IndyBaroque draws was minimally available in early Indiana, and aspirational at best.

The choice of music leaned heavily toward French culture, as the 17th and early 18th centuries on this continent were significantly shaped by French exploration and trading. The process was cut short by the English victory in the Seven Years' (or French and Indian) War, whose outcome concentrated French dominance in the Canadian province of Quebec. The legacy has been fiercely protected there to this day; I was once caught up in Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations in Montreal and can attest to that.

Accordingly, the ensemble — harpsichordist Gerber, plus Sarah Cranor, violin; Leighann Daighl-Ragusa, flute; and Erica Rubis, viola da gamba — launched the program with a pair of noels by Michel Corrette, a charming composer whose life spanned most of the 1700s, and who was later heard from Friday in the more substantial Sonata for Violin and Continuo in D minor.

Discreetly amplified to accommodate the outdoor setting, the quartet was judiciously balanced. Pieces that used just two or three of the players were likewise heard in their proper proportions, and coordination among the players displayed the attractiveness of the repertoire superbly. Flute-violin articulation was well-matched in the Gigue that concluded a selection from Jean-Joseph Mouret, a composer best known (though not by name) as the composer of the Masterpiece Theatre theme.

I enjoyed the exhibition accorded the viol player Erica Rubis in the aptly titled "L'Ameriquaine" for her instrument and harpsichord by Marin Marais, a 17th-century composer who got a bump in recognition nearly three decades ago as the subject of the movie "All the Mornings of the World." The piece had the bumptious, go-your-own-way creative push that probably was designed to capture qualities of the New World that kept generating Old World curiosity about the continent it was busily conquering.

Substantial trio sonatas by G.F.  Handel and Carl Friedrich Abel, both notable as Germans who made successful careers in London, led up to the surprising treat of Gerber's presentation as a singer in a couple of anonymous compositions once known in the musical theater scene of Williamsburg,Virginia (a proto-Broadway in its heyday): "Matrimony in Fashion" and "Over the Hills and Far Away." Accompaniment, including the singer's keyboard, was neatly fashioned to allow the texts to be heard from Gerber's ingratiating voice.

A final affirmation of the connection of all this to local history (sung by Gerber a cappella) was Father Jean de Brebeuf's text to what has become known as "the Huron Carol." As a finale, its inclusion may have been the most uncontroversial way in which the often vehement encounter of contrasting cultures could be presented. It was a reminder that while issues of settlement and conquest will always be with us, there has sometimes been sweet harmony in the result.

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