Early-music ensemble to play works by composers, friends

Ensemble Chaconne will debut Friday in Schenectady County Community College’s chamber music series.
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Baroque lutenist Olav Chris Henriksen likes to think of his trio, Ensemble Chaconne, as a circle of friends.

“We’re the original players who founded the group and we live across the street from each other,” he said. “So it’s a neighborhood thing.”

Ensemble Chaconne will debut Friday in Schenectady County Community College’s chamber music series. The concert is part of a 10-day tour that includes stops in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, upstate New York and Canada.

In 1985, Henriksen was traveling in Switzerland when he met Carol Lewis, a viola da gamba player who shared his interest in period music. She in turn knew Peter Bloom, a flutist and jazz musician who also played baroque flute. They discovered they had all been interested in period music since the 1970s, when this style of music was having a kind of renaissance.

“Period music became a way of life,” Henriksen said, adding that in the 1970s he was also playing jazz and fusion guitar.

Eventually they all settled in the Boston area, where they took jobs teaching at the local conservatories — Henriksen still teaches at Boston Conservatory — or becoming consultants in historical performance for such organizations as Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts or the American Museum of Britain.

Ensemble Chaconne

WHERE: Taylor Auditorium at Schenectady County Community College, 78 Washington Ave., Schenectady

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: 381-1231, or click here

Over the years, each continued their own performance careers, which included solo recitals or freelance work with such groups as Boston Camerata, Hesperion, the Waverly Consort, the Handel & Haydn Society or even the Boston Symphony Orchestra when it did something from the baroque era.

In 2009, Chaconne was named to the Early Music America Touring Roster, one of only 33 ensembles in North America to be so honored. Its latest CD is “Measure for Measure: The Music of Shakespeare’s Plays” (Americas Musicworks).

“It’s [the variety of work] a patchwork and a luxury for the freelancer,” Henriksen said. “We can cherish all the different flavors.”

How music evolved

To find the repertoire for Chaconne to play has required all of them to develop their research skills. This means scouting out archives in various collections, listening to recordings or even to old music boxes. But Henriksen has another mission: to try to understand the music of the past as the audiences of the time would have experienced it. For us to hear Bach’s or Vivaldi’s music may be commonplace, but in the years it was written the music was considered avant-garde, he said.

So he started with 1500 and examined what was written for plucked instruments. As he progressed decade by decade, he saw how the styles changed, how the harmony became more complex and how as each instrument developed it could do more.

“I experienced the ongoing excitement as the music evolved,” he said. “Fortunately, there was a lot of documentation as to how to play the music. There were common traits throughout, but music is timeless. Music is music and can be enjoyed at any time. The voice of the time still appeals.”

With all this in mind, Chaconne began to develop programs that either had a theme or that linked the composers in some way. For this Friday program, Henriksen found an unusual connection. He had been visiting museums to look at paintings that might have musicians pictured and discovered that one painter in particular, Thomas Gainsborough, liked to paint friends who were musicians. With some research into archives in England, he not only got the names of the players but found some of the music they composed.

The four friends/composers whose music he found were Thomas Linley (1732-1795), Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780), Anne Ford (1737-1824) and Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782). All of them wrote for cittern, which is a kind of English baroque lute.

Linley wrote the trio “When Sable Night”; Sancho wrote the cittern solo “Sweetest Bard”; and Bach, who was one of J.S. Bach’s sons, wrote the trio “Che ciaseun per te sospiri.”

Madonna of her day

Research on Ford proved especially amusing. “She was the Madonna of her day,” Henriksen said laughing. “She was an aristocrat who wanted to play on stage, which was considered below her class. Gainsborough painted her with tight leggings. The painting was considered very risqué.”

But Ford was no dilettante. Her “Presto” for solo cittern is very detailed, he said. Some of the other composers Chaconne will perform had connections to J.S. Bach. Handel (1685-1759), who was German but spent most of his life in London, was a contemporary. Henriksen will play Handel’s Lute Sonata in A minor. Vivaldi (1675-1741) was another contemporary who lived in Italy. Often when the English aristocracy traveled abroad, they’d pick up scores of music they heard. In one such collection, Henriksen found Vivaldi’s trio, Concerto in D Major.

Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787) was a family friend of the Bachs. When he moved from Germany to London, he became the apartment mate of Johann Cristoph until Bach married in 1773. Together they put together a concert series that lasted 16 years and ended only when Johann died. Lewis will perform Abel’s Solo for Viola da Gamba in D minor.

Rudolf Straube (1717-1785) was one of J.S. Bach’s favorite harpsichord students. He was also a lutenist, and when he moved to London in 1754 he began to play and compose for the cittern. Henriksen will play his Fantasie in C Major. The other two composers on the program, Felice de Giardini (1716-1796) and Johann Christian Fischer (1783-1800), were chosen because of their connection to each other.

De Giardini was an Italian violin virtuoso who came to London in 1750 as one of many instrumentalists who were seeking work in the new middle class. During the 17th century, the aristocracy had controlled where and when musicians played primarily because they were the ones who had the money to pay them.

But in the mid-18th century, a middle class began to develop that had funds to sponsor and attend concerts and take lessons to learn to play the instruments, Henriksen said.

“This led to a wider spectrum of music and musicians, many from other countries,” he said.

The trio will play de Giardini’s Trio V in C Major. Fischer was a famous oboist who had worked for years in the courts of Dresden and Berlin. When he moved to London in 1768, he met de Giardini’s daughter, and much against her father’s wishes, they married. Henriksen will play Fischer’s Sonata IX in D minor.

As for the instruments the trio will play on, they will use an original 18th-century boxwood and ivory flute; an English guitar/cittern circa 1765; a 1992 reproduction of a Baroque lute by Joel van Lennep; and a 1989 reproduction of a bass viola da gamba by Guy Derat.

Categories: Life and Arts

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