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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Going for Baroque

Bachanalia Dept.: Harpsichordist Robert Conant presented his Festival of Baroque Music for over half a century in the Saratoga area, calling it quits two summers ago. Here’s the kind of concert you’d have encountered, one that I attended and reviewed in 1988.


WHAT DO YOU FIND in an out-of-the-way cottage in this out-of-the-way Saratoga County town on a drowsy summer evening?

Robert Conant

And mosquitos.

But the music is always the winner when Robert Conant presents his Baroque series, which began its 26th season with a concert Tuesday evening featuring internationally-renowned soloist August Wenzinger to perform a series of viola da gamba sonatas with harpsichordist Conant.

Wenzinger’s ability proves the stupidity of the concept of retirement: although well past that age, his face has the youthful impishness of Fred Astaire’s. And the first notes of the Bach sonata that started the program had the authority of a master.

You can tell so much from those first few notes. The slow introduction had the self-assurance that comes from a performer who has explored the piece for years, balanced with that important invitation to the audience to come along for more such exploration.

Thanks to artists like Conant and Wenzinger, the music of Bach and his contemporaries has been wrenched free of the Romantics who would dress it in unnecessary frou-frou. It has a vitality achieved very much on its own terms while never losing its essence (although Bach himself might deny it): entertainment.

The viola da gamba is a six-stringed instrument that looks like a squished cello – and sounds like it if we suppose an injury that pitched the voice up an octave. Wenzinger’s turn-of-the-18th-century model had a beautifully shaped body with intricate inlay on the wide neck.

Gamba sonatas by Bach opened and closed the program, and the soloist even had an extra sonata to offer. “I thought it not very fair of Bach,” Wenzinger explained. “He wrote six sonatas for violin and six for cello – but only three for the gamba.” So, following an 18th-century practice, Wenzinger arranged a set of movements into a “fourth sonata,” a nicely-realized work that ends with a wonderful fugue.

Carl Friedrich Abel’s solo Sonata in D Minor has a Bachian flavor as it roams the many voices the gamba has to offer. Relentlessly minor-key until its finale, it was a thoughtful contrast; the concluding menuet shrugged off the previous dolefulness with a charming dance.

Conant took a solo spot with a sonata by one of Bach’s sons, Carl Phillip Emanuel, a rebel whose iconoclastic music influenced Beethoven, as Conant explained in his introduction. He’s a rarity among musicians by being able to speak just as effectively as he plays.

Perhaps the best testament to this engaging performance was the audience’s endurance of the dive-bombing bugs. Hardly a slap was heard until after each piece, one of which Wenzinger himself charmingly described as a “sonata with obligato mosquito.”

The series continues at noon July 21 with an open rehearsal of arias from Bach’s B Minor Mass; the full performance will be at 4 p.m. July 24 at Canfield Casino in Saratoga Springs.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 14 July 1988

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