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Fort Worth Presents: Not Your Grandfather’s Baroque

by Jerome Weeks 23 Aug 2010 8:09 AM

Baroque music often sounds serene, glorious, confident in praising God, king and universal order. But the 17th and 18th centuries, the period of the Baroque, saw the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War, religious strife and the conquest of the New World. This month, Circle Theatre and the Fort Worth Symphony give us THAT Baroque.


David Lambert, Steven Pounders, Andy Baldwin, Steven Levall (l to r) in Bach at Leipzig

This seems to be baroque music month in Fort Worth. Both the Fort Worth Symphony and Circle Theatre happen to be presenting works from and about the Baroque era. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks says it’s not the Baroque we usually hear.

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[“Gloria et Honore” plays]

This is the sound of the Baroque: Serene, glorious, confident in praising God, king and universal order.

But the 17th and 18th centuries, the period of the Baroque, saw the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War and religious strife throughout Europe. The Protestant Reformation splintered into dozens of quarreling labels: Anglican, Puritan, Calvinist –

Schott: “You are a Pietist.”

Fasch: “My point exactly! Why must everything have a name?”

Schott: “So that we know which houses to burn.”

That’s also the sound of the Baroque – at least as heard in Itamar Moses’ comedy, Bach at Leipzig. The play, presented by Circle Theatre, is based on fact. In 1722, leading musicians competed for the prestigious post of church music director — or cantor — for the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) and the related Thomasschule in Leipzig, Germany. Chief among the candidates: the composers Georg Philip Telemann and Johann Sebastian Bach.

But Bach at Leipzig is something of a historical-intellectual farce on the order of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. It follows the lesser candidates – bumblers who connive and bribe and attempt to murder each other, all in the name of making beautiful music — for God and Germany.

Kaufman: “That’s what unites us! Our theater, our music. Culture, Steindorf, that in the end is all that distinguishes us –“

Steindorf: “From the animals – “

Kaufman: “NO! From the English!”

Steindorf: “What?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Baroque music traveled with Jesuit missionaries and Spanish conquistadors as they carved up South America – for God and king. In fact, the music we heard at the start – this music, from a recording by the London Baroque-period-instrument ensemble, Florilegium (left) – was composed by Jan Josef Ignac Brentner in Czechoslovakia around 1720.

Yes, that was just about the time of that church competition in Leipzig.

But the piece is sung — by Bolivians. That’s because in the past several decades, thousands of music scores like this one have been unearthed in Latin American churches and missions, even in the royal library in Madrid, Spain. These manuscripts have been called the musical equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is Baroque music as interpreted 300 years ago by native South Americans, in some cases by Chiquitos and Guarani Indians. (Florilegium has been particularly, well, instrumental in popularizing the ‘Bolivian Baroque’ — in news stories and a series of  three CDs.)

The Fort Worth Symphony will highlight this music in its Great Performances Festival. This is the ninth festival by the FWSO but the first dedicated to Baroque music. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya (below) took the opportunity to offer popular pieces by Bach, Vivaldi, Purcell and Handel — and in the second of the three concerts, he’s included selections from the Bolivian and Peruvian Baroque.

The New World Baroque can sound different from Old World Baroque. It was a case of high church music, the Latin mass, meeting the music of the Andes.


Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Photo: Jerome Weeks

Harth-Bedoya: “The Andean music was unique in rhythms and sonorities that didn’t exist anywhere else. And then you have some Spanish rhythms that mix with these Andean and coastal rhythms creating brand new rhythms.”

New World Baroque also sounds different because the South Americans often had to make their own instruments. The Fort Worth Symphony will employ the charango, a stringed instrument like a lute – originally made with the shell of an armadillo.

Harth-Bedoya: “For the percussion instruments, we’ll use some of the Andean bass drum, the bombardino. We’ll use seed rattles, and then a donkey’s jawbone, so it vibrates when you slap that. And the cajon, that was invented by African slaves, which is a box.”

European sources at the time claim that native South Americans responded eagerly to the Baroque. They loved the drama of the Mass. They formed orchestras and choruses. As Harth-Bedoya says, it was a door to new sounds. But he also says that their response was nothing compared to how they took to the next European musical import full of drama and conflict.

It was opera.