Now in its 40th season, Music Before 1800 presented the charismatic Early Music quartet Wayward Sisters in a sold-out program last night called “The Naughty List: Music by Braggarts, Hotheads, Curmudgeons, and Snobs.” A tightly packed crowd at the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York City got a taste of a number of lesser-known 17th-century composers, anchored by later works by Bach and Vivaldi.
Looking at the program, I wondered if opening the concert with a work by J.S. Bach might end up reflecting poorly on the other composers. But this was by no means an array of “Bach manqués.” Rather, the works comprised a quick survey of European musical creativity in the decades before Bach and Vivaldi made their marks, and with the threads of tradition that fed these innovative composers who did not become household names. Equally important, the concert was just plain fun, thanks to the music’s spirited beauty and Wayward Sisters’ infectious energy.
After demonstrating a superb ability to fuse emotion with precision and infuse life and breath into centuries-old music with Bach’s “Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kamm,” the quartet broke out the English-born composer William Brade’s “Choral with Variations,” a showpiece for baroque violin. Backed by baroque cellist Anna Steinhoff and theorbist John Lenti, violinist and substitute Sister Edwin Huizinga sold the piece with hammy verve, making something of a case for the “mischievous, wanton” Brade (1560-1630) as the Paganini of his time.
Next, Lenti displayed a nimble touch and lively sensibility on the strings of the theorbo, the large and (to modern eyes) ungainly-looking lute that fans know as a mainstay of Early Music ensembles. Italian composer Bellerofonte Castaldi (1581-1649) played the theorbo, and composed, Lenti told us, for his instrument exclusively. Castaldi was apparently quite a character. In addition to committing a revenge murder, he didn’t mince words: Opposing the use of castrati in cantata performances, he said, according to Wikipedia, that it was “laughable that a man with the voice of a woman should set about proposing to his mistress.” Madness and folly, he might have added. Appropriately, Lenti played Castaldi’s “La Follia.”
Tarquinio Merula’s randy and slinky “Sonata Prima” featured recorder player Anne Timberlake, who performs with the physical energy of an actor, an attitude which, gratifyingly, carries through to the music itself. A very brief “Ciaconna” also by Merula followed. Known as a “Chaconne” in French, this type of piece repeats a chord progression over and over while various instruments improvise over it. (Blues, jazz, and rock soloists spend a lot of their time playing Chaconnes without realizing it.)
Matthew Locke’s Suite No. 6 in D Major featured a lovely, pastoral “Ayre,” a stately and slightly quirky “Courante,” a “Saraband” with notes of heavy metal, and an opening “Fantazie” that included a spooky section based on a rising chromatic scale. In Locke’s music, the Sisters informed us, we can “discern the influence of just about nobody.” It’s enlightening and fun to hear music that broke ground in its own time, even if today we can identify its time just by hearing it.
Vivaldi’s Sonata No. 3 in A Minor featured Steinhoff’s forceful musicality on the baroque cello, and Nicola Matteis’ Ayres for the Violin: Book 4 brought Huizinga back to figurative center stage as Lenti switched to the baroque guitar.
The concert closed with “Sonata Duodecima” by Dario Castello, a composer about whom little is known. Wikipedia suggests he played the cornetto or the bassoon; the Wayward Sisters say he was probably a trombonist (a sackbut player in those days, I suppose). We do know that his music was original and improvisatory. All four Sisters had opportunities to preen in this sonata. Its few minutes contain a great many modes and tempi, and the musicians negotiated the transitions with charming smoothness. The quick dance segment toward the end (I’m not sure which type – perhaps the ancient Italian “hoedown”?) helped tie up the concert with a bright bow.
Even if it was a stretch in a few cases, the “Naughty List” conceit tied the works together amusingly. Aside from being a little too popular for the small size of the hall, the music created by these “Braggarts, Hotheads, Curmudgeons, and Snobs” added up to a sheer delight.