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Fine Concert from Vermeer’s Visual Organology


On Friday, March 2, Duo Maresienne (Olav Chris Henriksen on lute, Baroque guitar and cittern; and Carol Lewis on viola da gamba) with harpsichordist Hendrik Broekman offered a multifaceted program of 17th-century works for keyboard and strings by several of the leading names of the day in the Low Countries and Northern Germany. The impetus for the offering, Vermeer’s visual organology, added a unifying, satisfying dimension to the program in the chapel of First Church Congregational, Cambridge.

It was cauld in the kirk. Friday’s cold snap, and presumably some communications snafu with the building’s owners, left the chapel quite chilly. As one performer noted, this re-created an authentic historic environment less often experienced today. That might be taking historically informed performance to an unwanted extreme, however. Both instruments and humans respond unevenly to such a setting: uncharacteristic finger faults and tuning problems were traceable to the situation throughout. Raising the temperature too quickly could be bad for the instruments, so performers and audience alike soldiered on, with little noticeable thinning of the listening ranks, even after intermission. And the trio courageously propelled an otherwise well-prepared show forward, despite the temperature issues.

Remaining true to their name (“Maresienne” suggests music of the era of violist Marin Marais, at Versailles from 1679-1725), Broekman, Henriksen and Lewis offered a considerately paced study of works from the late 16th to the early 18th centuries. Dipping back in time just a bit further, and in place about 10 days’ ride by coach from Paris to Amsterdam, resonant programming allowed listeners to compare treatments of the Pavan d’Espagne by, say, Sweelinck (1562-1621) and Valerius ((c. 1575-1625); and to follow the covers of Dowland’s popular Lachrime Pavan by Schop (fl. 1614-1667), van den Hove (1567-1620), and Schildt (1592-1667).

Textures and voicings varied, as well. Broekman’s meditative solo rendition of Sweelinck’s extended study on Mein junges Leban hat ein end, kept faith with its change-ringing-like ground; the final three dance-suite-like compilations by the Belgian Hacquart (1645-91), the token Frenchman Derosier (fl. 1688-99) and, returning to Amsterdam, Schenck (1660-1712) were played by members of the trio con brio. The players noted, too, the varied sources for their instruments: Broekman had built the harpsichord he played, its lid motto coincidentally matching that of an open keyboard in one of Vermeer’s paintings; one of Henriksen’s instruments is after an original in the Boston MFA collection that he has played there. All, listed, had a distinguished parentage.

Domestic in scale, the performers maintained a friendly, informal lecture-demo style, describing their affinities for the music and the works of Vermeer that sparked their choices. They had clearly both done their musicological homework and integrated Vermeer’s musical iconology into the programming: this was not a hastily laid-on conceit-as-afterthought. For those who care about the proper use of visual materials in musicology, as I do, it was also reassuring to hear their descriptions of what could and what could not be taken from the visual works. Instrumental iconography is often complex and sometimes symbolic: one cannot always assume documentary intention in its inclusion. Lutes, especially, were studied for the interesting problems their shapes offered the artist. (See Fig 18, here:) As conical surfaces, recessed according to the rules for that illusionistic representation of space we call one-point perspective, they were often interpolated into a scene, like tile patterns on a floor, to show off the artist’s abilities, just as a scalar riff shows off a virtuoso performer’s technical command. Sometimes a recorder is simply a prop in a still life or a sign of status in a genre work. Double bagpipes lying about may make a salacious allusion in some works. Instruments shown together may not have always been played together; an impossible fingering or a drum hanging too high on the chest may just be the artist’s misconstruction of how the instrument was played.

It was pleasant to be invited to incorporate an internally imagined scene into ones own listening improvisations. The group had taken the trouble to copy out and display several works alluded to throughout the concert (which in a more tech-y setting might also have been projected serially on a small table-top digital viewer, or even shown on a screen behind the players between sections) and to describe in their sectional introductions the particular pieces they had connected with, how they informed their musical choices, and what they saw in them.

My own picture of the three of them — Henriksen’s fingers moving lightly and intelligently, like spiders on the strings; Broekman, bent intently to the keyboard he had made himself; and Lewis’s lively bow, now dancing like a thing alive, its tip punctuating a phrase like a tapestry needle picking out a pattern on canvas — and of the rest of us, huddled in our wraps against an exterior chill but warmed within by their generous outpouring of energy, talent and commitment to their craft, remains in my mind as well. Seated in a building built by descendants of those early Cantabrigians who, exiled for non-conformity, had in some cases also been in the Netherlands around this time, (Rev. Thomas Hooker, fleeing Laud’s ire, was in Rotterdam from 1631-33 before he answered this parish’s first pulpit call) I was also struck by the ways such works weave themselves in and out of common, ordinary lives as well as those of courtiers like those at Amsterdam or Versailles.

We see in Joel Cohen’s 1985 book, Reprise, and ongoing publications like Early Music , or Early Music America how we have grown in our appreciation and support of such musics. Once needing to educate audiences to their pleasures in order to have audiences at all, Baroque music in particular has enjoyed a more assured fan base for some time. It is now time to begin bringing up new audiences to the same level of enjoyment, and primary research into repertoire, musicians’ careers, and their interactions with each other is solid enough to allow such a close focus as this program offered on historic regional characteristics, and to discover such resonances as those suggested by the plucked and bowed strings of Friday evening’s program

There were small quibbles: I might have wanted a different (more stately?) tempo in the opening Schop Pavan and I might have appreciated a bit more dynamic differentiation in answering pian e forte passages throughout. But, to my mind, the group overcame serious environmental challenges and presented a coherent, well-performed, joyful, even passionate, program that offered a full, satisfying range, from pensive, to pleasantly refined, to ebullient.

They deserve a more extensive audience following, even—maybe even especially—on a chilly rainy night like last Friday. On the other hand, those who came created the very intimate, family-like domestic setting for which at least some of the works were known to have been created, and which is so often commented upon in Vermeer’s scenes. By the end I had concluded that indeed, perhaps less was in fact more.

A swift flurry of diminutions, silence, and a smile.

We are so lucky.

Donna La Rue researches, writes and presents on the medieval liturgical arts, focusing on the town of Sens. She has published critical reviews for the Boston Phoenix and has taught integrated arts and art history courses for local universities.

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