The Sarasa Chamber Music Ensemble presented a surprisingly diverse and illuminating array of Baroque trio sonatas in the acoustically-friendly confines of the Friends Meeting House in Cambridge Saturday evening, January 12th. The weather may have been a bit murky, but the music-making could not have been more crisp and clear.
At first blush, the evening’s program appeared to be a bit of a Baroque tossed salad, but, as elucidated by harpsichordist Matthew Hall, this was actually a carefully arranged multi-course musical meal. Early and late Baroque compositions were juxtaposed, as were pieces of German and Italian origin, making for enlightening comparisons.
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was one of Western music’s most prolific composers, penning over 3,000 works. His Trio Sonata in A minor got things off to a spritely start. This get-up-and-move music was enhanced by Sarasa’s shapely phrasing and rhythmic propulsion. Recorder player Sarah Cantor exuded a joie de vivre as she swooped and swayed her way through this lively piece. All four players were fully engaged, performing with conviction and controlled passion. With their infectious enthusiasm and obvious love of craft, it’s easy to see why Sarasa has developed a highly effective outreach program. Focusing on incarcerated teens, the group frequently performs in local correctional centers, introducing a new world of music that quite literally has kids dancing to the beat. If only we could have done the same!
In contrast to this high Baroque offering, Pier Francesco Cavalli’s (1602-1676) Canzon a 3 was a far less complex, sweetly poignant ballad representative of the early Baroque period. The dulcet tones of the soprano recorder were tinged with poignancy, enhanced by cellist Timothy Merton’s introspective and understated energy. Given this piece’s long, lyrical melodic lines, it’s certainly not surprising to learn that Cavalli is actually best known for his operatic works.
Heading back north, the Sarasians next explored a work by another early Baroque composer, Heinrich Biber (1644-1704). His Sonata No. 1 in D minor “The Annunciation” is the first in a series of 15 succinct musical depictions of seminal moments in the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary known collectively as the Rosary (or Mystery) Sonatas. It’s a virtuosic composition showcasing Biber’s instrument of choice, the violin. After providing the verbal program notes, violinist Cynthia Roberts launched into this extremely challenging piece with an emphatic, athletic performance. Her playing is forceful and direct; the occasional mouse squeak rapidly chased away. This bravura rendition was immediately followed by Arcangelo Corelli’s (1653-1713) Sonata “La Folia,” Op. 5, No. 12, a violin-free offering that allowed Cynthia’s instrument a bit of time to cool off. Utilizing that most familiar of European musical themes (appearing in the works of at least 150 composers), this piece consists of a succession of brief, engaging variations, adroitly realized by all performers. Sarah Cantor demonstrated youthful effervescence, smooth phrasing, and exemplary breath control on the recorder (one of five she employed during the evening), with continuo players Merton and Hall actively invested in every note. In point of fact, as the piece spiraled towards its climactic final flourish, it appeared as if Merton’s cello were in danger of bursting into flames and Hall’s harpsichord ending up in splinters.
After an intermission that allowed both the performers and the large audience to catch our breaths, next on the agenda were back-to-back Bachs. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), son of the Great Master and godson of Telemann, is an extremely gifted, albeit somewhat underappreciated, late Baroque composer. Mozart said of him, “He is the father, we are the children.” The younger Bach was greatly influenced by his father, as clearly evidenced in his Trio Sonata in B minor, Wq 143. Featuring Brandenburgian beams refracted through a more modern musical lens, this masterful work is relatively predictable compared to other C.P.E. Bach creations, though certainly not without the occasional tangy turn of phrase. The personalities of each of the players were on display, to great overall effect: ebullient Cantor, robust Roberts, focused Merton, confident Hall.
Speaking of Hall, his keyboard prowess rocked in the penultimate work on the program, J.S. Bach’s (1685-1750) Toccata in D major, BWV 912 for solo harpsichord. Though written by a young composer (Herr Bach was just 25), the style of this work was, as stated by Hall in his introductory remarks, considered to be “old-fashioned.” Thus, this piece exists at the nexus of staid tradition and youthful exuberance, the latter seemingly trumping the former in this energetic creation. The harpsichord buzzed and sparkled (and, very occasionally, hiccoughed) under Hall’s fleet fingers as he performed with assurance and verve.
Rounding out the evening was the Trio Sonata in D major, RV 84 by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). In Tim Merton’s words, this piece “speaks for itself.” This quintessentially vivacious Vivaldi composition did indeed, to the delight of all.
Seemingly over in a blink, the concert could be summarized in a single word: fun! The members of the Sarasa Chamber Music Ensemble are all accomplished, passionate musicians, playing with conviction and demonstrating heightened communication skills, both among themselves as well as to their audience. There’s no doubt these extremely capable ambassadors are making a difference in our community as they endeavor to bring the joy of classical music to the underprivileged. In addition, they represent a vast, untapped energy source: just plug in to the Sarasa dynamo and say good-bye to unnecessary oil, wind turbines, and solar panels!