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July 2, 2012

Guest blog post: Report from Washington Early Music Festival

Apologies for being late posting this guest blog review (there was a little storm in the area over the weekend that threw me off-course). --TIM

By Logan K. Young

One of the greatest things about classical music has always been its deference to history. In fact, it's this particular truth that’s enabled the Washington Early Music Festival to thrive for the past six seasons.

But what makes for an "historically informed performance"? For those unfamiliar with viols, mean tone temperament and the Doctrine of Affections, it can seem like a needlessly heady designation. In theory, any performance that’s not a premiere is inherently informed by history.

At the head of the information debate sits the notion that Bach's orchestra was indeed vastly different than the one Marin Alsop leads today. This idea may be held self-evident, but as in any argument of sound, there's bound to be a slippery slope.

For extremists like Canada's Tafelmusik, everything must go — down to the strings, themselves. It's gut, not hair (much less synthetics), that Jeanne Lamon, Tafelmusik's activist director, demands.

And let's not even get started on Sir Roger Norrington...

The truth is some ensembles are simply more "H.I.P." than others. And the really great ones, well, they study at least as much as they rehearse.

John Moran and Risa Browder's Modern Musick, celebrating its own tenth season in 2012, is one such group.

Moran teaches viola da gamba, baroque cello and performance practice at Peabody, where he co-directs the Baltimore Baroque Band with Browder, his wife. Both are distinguished graduates of the Oberlin Conservatory and the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland.

And Thursday night's concert at St. Mark's Episcopal on Capitol Hill proved just how well-read they are; every eye, and ear, was upon them.

Thankfully, Moran and Browder aren't nearly as dogmatic as some of their performance practice peers. To wit, their kind of grace made Modern Musick's all-Venetian program ("Venezia, mi amore!") truly resplendent.

Marco Uccellini's opening "Sinfonia boscarecie" (1660) remained effective, but not affected. There are some thorny chromatic passages in the middle movements, and Moran, Browder and second violinist Leslie Nero executed them with aplomb.

All evening, harpsichordist Adam Pearl's continuo realizations sounded ...

pitch perfect. Likewise, his solo reading of the first part to the second book of Girolamo Frescobaldi's "Toccate e partite d'intavolatura" (1627) was smartly rendered, but not pretentiously so.

The highlight of the program, Antonio Vivaldi's Trio Sonata in D Minor, Op.1, No. 12 (1705), found Moran, Browder, Nero and Pearl in grand consort. Again, the virtuosic violin writing was ably executed, and of course, all were historically justified. The Red Priest of Venice, himself, would surely have given this performance a blessing.

As with new music specialists, becoming "H.I.P." is essentially a lifestyle choice. And honestly, at the end of the colloquium, the gripe over how to hold a bow or where to seat the violas may never be settled.

Regardless, there's a certain kind of intimacy — a hushed candor even — that comes from four talented, learned musicians playing so deftly in a beautiful space like St. Mark's. Modern Musick's was a sound to savor, indeed.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:21 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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