February 1, 2002

Baroque and sassy

Works by Corelli, Fontana, Uccellini, Rossi, Pandolfi, and Bonporti

Andrew Manze, baroque violin; Richard Egarr, harpsichord

Mandel Hall

January 25, 2002

I will never understand why people don't get up and start dancing when they hear baroque music. Baroque music rocks. It has crisp rhythm, and it is in constant, nay, infinite movement, kicking its sequences further and further until, at some point, the composer decides that it's enough. It has more energy and rhythm than drum-and-bass, and it has more drive and force than black metal. Should I ever become rich, I will rent some antique-ish theater and have a baroque opera staged there. There will be no seats. The place will be one big dance floor, and people will realize that they must accord to the laws of music and rock away to the tripping sounds of Handel.

The reason why I can talk about baroque music like this is due, of course, to the amazing changes that the practice of this music underwent in the last 50 years. Think back. In the middle of the century — and to a certain extent until decades later — baroque music was still in the hands of musicians coming out of the romantic tradition. In the performances of, say, Karajan, baroque music sounded like a gigantic, unshapely Godzilla stomping through the hall. Massive orchestras and even more gargantuan choirs were mobilized to deal the deathblow to Bach's wonderful sacred works; the violins shrieking with an overdose of vibrato; the sopranos wobbling helplessly through the coloraturas; the trumpets, once intended to sing out the glory of God, sounding much rather like the Apocalypse, deafening the ear of the sensitive listener, proclaiming forcefully the end of musical sensitivity. In short, Bach sounded like Berlioz.

Then the music scholars and the scholarly musicians took over. As the legacy of the romantic age faded, there emerged an increasing awareness for the conventions of the baroque age itself, spawning extensive research on 17th and 18th century performance practice, ornamentation, rhythm, dynamics, and the overall musical aesthetic of the time. Historical instruments were rediscovered or rebuilt, and specially trained musicians learned to play them the way they were perhaps played hundreds of years ago. Baroque orchestras and chamber ensembles were founded, producing innumerable great recordings of the works of Monteverdi, Schütz, Purcell, Bach, and others. Many minor composers were rediscovered, and the operas of Handel experienced a dazzling revival, the end of which is not in sight.

All these developments completely changed our understanding not merely of baroque music, but of the entire age itself. This age, we have learned, was as passionate and creative as any, a lot of its music as exciting, daring, and avant-garde-ish as any later composer's. To be sure, to make this music sound exciting, and once again new in our time, it takes performers of great passion, but also of great learning. The baroque's specific notion of the composing and the performing processes as techné, as craftsmanship — so different from the later stylizing of the artist as genius — that makes the musician every bit as much a creative force as the composer cannot simply be evoked: it can only be recreated by a long and patient study of the historical practices. But even such study cannot teach what is perhaps most integral to today's most exciting baroque performances, namely a sensitivity to the demands of this music as well as a developed sense of liberty and creativity.

These talents were found in abundance in our artists of last Friday night, violinist Andrew Manze and harpsichordist Richard Egarr. The good-humored duo led us through a musical journey from the early to the late baroque, presenting mostly rarely-heard music, Corelli, with whom the recital began and ended, being the only familiar name on the list. Manze and Egarr made a compelling case for this exciting virtuoso music of the so-called "Stylus Phantasticus." With great enthusiasm and spontaneity they brought to new life a great range of musical styles and expressions, varying from Fontana's early attempts at duo writing and Pandolfi's wildly imaginative single-movement sonatas to Corelli's famous and spectacular "Follia" variations. In vivid colors, they drew picture of a fascinating epoch, recreating for us an urgent sense of what it might have felt like to listen to these works when they were first written.

While Egarr got to feature in a crazy solo harpsichord toccata by Rossi, his partner necessarily stole the show. Manze, the rising star of the baroque movement, is also a conductor and a scholar, and he is a learned musician in the best sense who always uses his vast knowledge to point us back to the music itself. Indeed, his command and understanding of the possibilities of the baroque violin is perhaps unparalleled today, as is his musical sensitivity and daring. Friday night, his violin was not just a violin. It chirped like a bird, screamed like a child, sang like an angel, and roared like a rock guitar. We listened in disbelief but were dazzled as we learned that Vivaldi's Four Seasons is by no means the only baroque work to make creative use of the violin.

We should consider ourselves lucky to have such great concerts on our campus, and it is in that sense that I extend my thanks to the University of Chicago Presents series and their alertness for exciting musical talent. (By the way, Marna Seltzer, the artistic director of the Presents series, was recently named as one of the foremost creative forces in Chicago music life by The Chicago Tribune. We congratulate her, and wish her good luck for her future years as the musical muse of Mandel Hall.) Within the space of a mere seven days, we saw two duo recitals of outstanding quality that reminded us of the force and urgency that classical chamber music can still have in our lives today.

This evening with Manze was a memorable one, one that rocked. It seems to me that now that the baroque movement has firmly established its grip on the wider world of classical music, Manze might be one of the elect to take this movement to the next step and into the 21st century. Long live the phantastic Andrew Manze and his Protean violin!