Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Not the same old song: Sinfonia celebrates composers of the past

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Courtesy of Bach Sinfonia
The mind of the musicologist: Daniel Abraham studies notes from the past. His research will find a practical application when the Bach Sinfonia performs Saturday evening in Silver Spring.
You can stop Daniel Abraham if you’ve heard this one before – but it’s not very likely to happen. The D.C.-based musicologist, who is American University’s director of choral activities and the Bach Sinfonia’s music and artistic director, is especially enamored of music that hasn’t been performed in public for hundreds of years.

‘‘Audiences and performers alike learn something from experiencing works that haven’t been performed,” says Abraham. ‘‘People should be aware: There are literally thousands of works – tens of thousands! – that have been dug out of the archives.”

Blowing the dust off those works and presenting them to the public is what Bach Sinfonia is all about.

This is the group’s 13th season, and their objective remains: to show classical music in a new way, with a focus on learning experiences for the audience and the performers. The music is strictly from the 17th and 18th centuries, but the productions veer toward the unique whenever possible. And what better way to be unique, Abraham says, than to make music no audience has heard in centuries?

Unknown entity

‘‘I personally think that one of the ultimate goals of musicology and scholarship should be to bring works of the past back before the public to at least consider,” Abraham insists.

Which is why, in its final performance of the season, The Bach Sinfonia — a Maryland-based musical non-profit focused on promoting performance of and education about early music — will present the modern premiere of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s ‘‘Stabat Mater.” Although the words come from a 13th century Roman Catholic hymn (first line, ‘‘Stabat Mater Dolorosa,” or ‘‘The Sorrowful Mother was standing”) Biber’s composition has not been performed since the early 17th century.

‘‘It’s not an unknown entity,” concedes Abraham, explaining that the novelty is not so much the commonly set text, but the little-known composition. ‘‘We know that it had some performance in its own contemporary lifetime; it was a piece of service music.

‘‘The beauty of it is that it gives insight into the working life of a composer.”

And while a piece like this is something routine for historians and musicologists, Abraham thinks it’s critical for modern music lovers to hear this link between the daily service music of the early Baroque period and the masterpieces that came later from better-known composers.

Biber, an Austrian-Bohemian from what’s now known as the Czech Republic, was Kapellmeister at the Cathedral of Salzburg from 1684 until his death in 1704. Nonetheless, the program for Saturday’s concert – which features soprano Jennifer Ellis Kampani, alto Barbara Hollinshead, tenor Tony Boutté and bass Sumner Thompson – offers a range of musical works from a number of distinct religious traditions.

Sense of purpose

‘‘There’s a real variety in these works,” says Abraham. ‘‘A variety of style, from the late Renaissance to the early Baroque period.

‘‘Even though it’s liturgical music, which tends to be behind the times, the works in this program are all very beautiful and elegant.”

And utilitarian. Just as Biber composed for daily worship on the steps of the cathedral, the Italian composer Salamone Rossi worked under the guidance of his rabbi.

‘‘Rossi is the one with the most intact biography,” says Abraham. ‘‘The one we know the most about.”

And for Abraham that’s key: ‘‘Any musician performing works that are tied to a religious outlook has to have a sense of the composer for those works,” he says. ‘‘We all have to understand the purpose: sacred, secular, or other.”

Based in Mantua, Rossi was a violinist whose work marks the transition from the late Italian Renaissance period to the early Baroque. He lived from 1570 to 1630, and called upon his own religious traditions: polyphonic Hebrew motets, into which important psalms were set.

Drama! Passion!

The work that straddles the Judeo-Christian divide, then, is Giacomo Carissimi’s oratorio ‘‘Historia di Jepthe.”

‘‘People know the story of Abraham and his son better than Jepthe and his daughter,” observes Abraham, ‘‘but it provides Carissimi with the first dramatic text he gets to set so well.”

It’s a great story: Jepthe asks for victory in battle and gets it. He’s required to slay the first person he sees on the way home — who happens to be his beloved daughter, rushing out to meet him. The drama of the story – from the Book of Judges – is reflected in the music.

‘‘It’s lovely,” says Abraham. ‘‘Easy to follow, dramatic – it unfolds in such a beautiful way.”

And Abraham says it’s the very first example of a genre that would later rock the music world.

‘‘The Carissimi, I think, is obviously one of the first great oratorios,” he says. ‘‘The form finds its peak in Handel a hundred years later...but you look at Roman Oratorio in its infancy.

‘‘This is where it grows up.”

For Abraham, it’s a moment in time that’s loaded with musical prescience – and that’s what the Bach Sinfonia is all about.

‘‘We like to educate in some manner at every concert,” he explains. ‘‘It should be enlightening, but we try and make it easy.”

To that end, there are program notes written by musical, historical and biblical scholars – and Abraham says the ‘‘unbelievable space at Woodside” will add to the audience’s enjoyment.

‘‘They can come and sit back, hear the music,” he says. ‘‘And maybe even think about the connections.”

Bach Sinfonia performs ‘‘The Forgotten Baroque: Masterworks from the Seventeenth Century” at 8 p.m. Saturday in Woodside United Methodist Church, 8900 Georgia Ave, Silver Spring. Tickets are $28, $25 for seniors, $15 for students and free for ages 14 and younger. Call 301-362-6525 or visit