Baroque Ensemble Nurtures Art Form in Louisville

by ekramer on April 10, 2009

These days many arts organizations have their sights set on surviving the economic recession. But, even now, one relatively new group in Louisville is just getting started. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.

In a house in Louisville’s Highland’s neighborhood, several musicians in their 20s are playing music by the 18th century Italian composer Luigi Boccherini. At the end of this movement, they talk about improving the piece. When cellist Sarah Biber chimes in, Nico Fortin — who plays violin — nods.

“I think we’re doing too much,” Biber says.

“Yeah,” says Fortin.

“We’re kind of uncomfortable because we’re pushing something to happen,” she says.

These musicians play the same instruments musicians played when Boccherini was alive. And they are all part of Bourbon Baroque, an ensemble Fortin and harpsichordist Austin Clark founded after they met at McGill University and earned their masters degrees in music.

Clark grew up in Louisville, but got the idea of starting a Baroque ensemble here when he was an undergraduate.

” I traveled around a lot in my college years and saw cities that had great artistic scenes,” Clark says.” And every cool city, at least cool to me, had a Baroque orchestra.”

San Francisco, Seattle and Minneapolis had them. And Clark thought Louisville should have one, too. So, in the summer of 2007, Clark and Fortin — who is from Quebec — moved here and set up their first concert.

Since then Bourbon Baroque has held concerts using freelance musicians and teamed up with the Kentucky Opera, the Louisville Youth Choir and the Choral Arts Society. And the ensemble has performed in some unlikely places — like the Water Tower and in barns.

Last weekend, Bourbon Baroque performed Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with the Choral Arts Society and the youth choir. The nearly five-hour performance packed St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church with hundreds of spectators. The Choral Arts Society’s Jim Rightmyer says Bourbon Baroque is part of a larger phenomenon.

“This is going on across the nation right now, the growth of period instruments,” Rightmyer says. “There are more and more music schools that are offering programs. And it’s marvelous because it — to me — it’s just an unbelievably different experience.”

The general experience most Americans have is with 19th century symphonic music — the mainstay for most orchestras. Baroque differs because it’s played on period instruments, and often in intimate settings with music that — somewhat like jazz — allows for improvisation.

Those qualities draw young musicians. Cellist Sarah Biber of New York says playing Baroque music is a passion. She freelances for several early music groups, but also plays in several new music ensembles. Biber says that’s not unusual.

“You often find this, this new music and early music, sort of, pairing,” Biber says. “It always goes together. I’ve heard too many people say that. ”

Teresa Wakim is here from Boston to sing. She freelances for ensembles in other cities and says performing Baroque is almost always different.

“All these ensembles, they sound different,” Wakim says. “They’re conducted differently. They have different ideas, but everyone’s able to collaborate and make a different sound even though sometimes it’s a lot of the same people.”

“The same people” she’s referring to are freelance musicians like her. Bourbon Baroque uses them. It’s economical and a way to consistently have experienced musicians who can produce quality music. Austin Clark studied with some. Others are from Indianapolis, Bloomington and Louisville. Clark.

“You create something like Bourbon Baroque and all of a sudden these people come out of the woodwork saying, ‘Oh, I play baroque violin,'” Clark says. “And we’ve met new people and we’re utilizing all these regional musicians.”

While Bourbon Baroque in new to Louisville, Early Music is not. The Early Music Ensemble was founded at the University of Louisville in the 1970s and plays several concerts a year.

Maria Coldwell is head of Early Music America, a non-profit organization that promotes the art form. She says 20 years ago, early music had a different reputation and fewer converts.

“We were associated with aging hippies, you know — the Birkenstocks and the graying ponytails and stuff like that,” she says.

Coldwell says that changed in part because the general public is more familiar with Baroque music like Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” And young musicians have fallen in love with performing early music.

It’s pretty obvious Nico Fortin is one as he talks about the music Bourbon Baroque might perform in future seasons.

“And there’s so much more music to discover,” he says. “Like there’s libraries all over the world full of music that it’s been performed once or twice in the 17th, 18th century — never heard again.”

One of those seldom heard pieces is the Boccherini music Bourbon Baroque will perform tonight at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Butchertown. And Fortin and Clark have their sights set even higher. They say they want to play in more venues throughout the region and, eventually, record Baroque music.

Baroque Ensembles in Other Cities
Boston Baroque
La Follia Austin Baroque (Austin, Texas)
Indy Baroque
The Lyra Baroque Orchestra (Minneapolis)
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (San Francisco)
Portland Baroque Orchestra (Oregon)
Seattle Baroque Orchestra

Schools with Early Music Programs
Boston University
Case Western Reserve University
Indiana University
Juilliard
McGill University
Oberlin College
University of North Texas

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