Verbruggin’

Indomitably funny, sprite, and at times extraordinarily bombastic for such a small woman, Marion Verbruggen presented a recorder masterclass that was educational and entertaining for the trained musician and aficionado alike.

Part of the charm of Verbruggen’s tutelage was watching the precision in which she excised her students’ performances—teasing out an ornamental and quite alive reading of what is often drudged and static. Navigating the space wrought from Verbruggen’s encouragement, students were free to be, and performances were transformed like trepidatious cats—stretching and breathing in their new found freedom.

This was not a class for traditionalists. In fact, at times, some of Verbruggen’s more liberal suggestions—her incessant devotion to the French, for example—made for a worthy squirm or two. “I know Bach was a Calvinist, but at the same time he liked partying,” she evinced.

While there is something nice in the application of theory and interpretation relegated to music beyond the Baroque era, something quaint about a deep and expressionistic reading of music whose lofty reputation often distances its listener, there is something to be said for the exactness of a piece of early music when it is pallid and regimented. After all, an artist can still be emotive and concise while upholding the tenants of tone and tempo. Too liberal a reading of early music will  discount its upbringing under the rigid, parental guidance of the church and monarchy in the hopes of making the music accessible again.

“It doesn’t mean you have to behave,” Verbruggen chided a student, ironically, as she stood under the austere precipice of Loper Chapel’s cold, brass cross and stained menagerie like a disobedient child convincing her friend to try cigarettes for the first time. Perhaps this is why Verbruggen’s masterclass was such a delight—don’t we all like misbehaving once in awhile?

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Packed Musica

“We’re just counting spaces to see how much room is left,” recorder player Judith Linsenberg shouted over the growing attendance line standing outside the Berkeley City Club venue where her ensemble, Musica Pacifica, was to play. Seating was so tight, in fact, that I, in an ill-advised decision that harkened to my days in arts administration, chose to review the concert from a standing position to allow my neighbors the opportunity of enjoying their concert experience sur la place. As physiology slowly outweighed circumstance—shaking arms, broken concentration, downtrodden spirit—I was forced to break concert-going’s cardinal rule and left. To those affected by my actions and to the performers especially: mea culpa, mea culpa.

Despite the close quarters, Musica Pacifica’s performance was a delightful and well-formed romp through the Irish, Scottish, and English dance and folk music collection that makes up their upcoming album, Dancing in the Isles (set for release October 2010). This was another mid-afternoon concert whose programming instilled temporary amnesia from things like heat, proximity, and for others, physiology; favoring the finer, sedate, and sometimes witty spectacle of 17th and 18th music. Dripping viols and powerful rhythmic precision guided the group on less a dance through the Isles and more a Viennese—though geographically and chronologically improbable—nevertheless, a romantic traipse through the subtleties and sonorities of music revisited. Some may have found Musica Pacifica’s penchant for broadminded recreation alarming, but the group’s proud adornment of change, as if fighting a Suffragette movement, credits them deserved respect. (Linsenberg on the absence of contrapuntal lines: “We’ve moved on since then.”) With the flock of dance followers herded tightly into City Club on Saturday, Musica Pacifica’s soul train proves one to board.

Greener Pastures

Championing the most iconic instrument of the early music period is not an easy task. Add the sweltering heat of mid-June and the small, dry-wall design of the Loper Chapel and soon what promised to be an intimate lute-focused concert, In the Garden So Green felt more restrictive and unsettled—lute as it decries its own worth and relevance in the 21st century.

This was an unexpected effect, given the concert’s impressive turnout, and perhaps the work of its commander, David Tayler. Tayler’s mastery over the instrument at Saturday’s Fringe event etched a blend of Scottish sounds—seasoned, admittedly, with instances of the harp—with more decor than what might have been intended by the composers themselves. Other times, his flourishes and Spanish-like ornamentation insolently turned the instrumentalist from wandering troubadour to early music’s version of redneck minstrel. The pieces flirted with being too metallic, too thwacking, too twangy; and left the sonorous aftertaste one might have hearing a tuning tool as it slowly drops inside a piano: pretty, robust, but a little odd.

But this review is a positive one. Despite it all, Tayler created the intimate setting demanded of a post-lunch lute concert and captivated his audience to such a degree that it willing sat in closed and silent session while temperatures rose to the point of intrusion. And there were some inviting surprises in interpretations of Fortune My Foe, Lachrimae Antiquae Pavan, and other such Dowlanditties.      Tayler’s battle between sensibility and sensation, old and modern, revered and popular mirrored much of the early music era itself. Romance, expressiveness, and new muted by the unseen force of tradition. If his lute be a woman: “She was stronger alone; and her own good sense so well supported her, that her firmness was as unshaken, her appearance of cheerfulness as invariable, as, with regrets so poignant and so fresh, it was possible for them to be.”

Fringe Concerts a Marked Success

“They start at the morning, then go on through noon, and end at night,” a San Francisco Early Music Society volunteer usher recounted of this year’s devoted Fringe concert audience. “Really they do! They’re exhausted!”

Concert attendees flocked to the Berkeley Festival and Exhibition’s 60 Fringe events in droves—a welcomed development for SFEMS, whose latter-day struggle with festival organization and depleted funding motivated the organization’s turn toward community-based programming. Though attendance statistics have yet to be tabulated while the festival continues, Harvey Malloy, SFEMS Executive Director, claimed that most Fringe concerts had been at almost full capacity: “They have been extremely well-received…they’ve been filling the house every night.”

“The concept of the festival as we conceived it,” Malloy explained, “[encouraged] a lot of equal participation from the community.” While SFEMS served as this year’s clearinghouse for festival promotion, most Fringe concerts were self-produced. Artists provided their own box office, ticket pricing, program books, and venue space.

Despite the collaboration with partner arts ensembles formed the cornerstone for Fringe concert success, Malloy avoided comment on the scope and strategy of future festivals. “I think it’s premature to say at the moment. Every festival we have brings early music up;” he explained, “[but] there will be a festival in 2012.”

Ralph Berberch, a SFEMS member and long-time patron of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, circled the festival’s exhibition room. Dazed from his two-week post as an on-call volunteer, one of the 80 members whose responsibilities ran the gamut from feeding musicians to moving instruments, Berberch regrets he could not attend most of the festival’s Fringe events. Of the sole festival event he had attended, last week’s Galax Quartet concert Bach’s Art of Fugue, Berberch unfalteringly quipped, “it’s great to hear such devoted musicians playing [this] incredible music.” “I’ll make it up!” Berberch promised as he continued his on-call duties—winking knowingly.