The ensemble Musica Pacifica has been wowing North-American audiences for over 20 years with their spirited approach to baroque music. We recently caught up with ensemble members Judith Linsenberg and Elizabeth Blumenstock via email while researching our retrospective show.
Q: How did you all get together, and how have things changed or evolved over 20 years?
A little over 20 years ago, Marilyn Boenau (baroque bassoon) and I decided it would be fun to play some of the larger chamber concertos of Vivaldi and Telemann that used winds as well as strings. So we “raided” the ranks of Philharmonia Baroque—which was in its early years—and got some of the best players to read through the music: at that time, it included myself on recorder, Elizabeth Blumenstock on violin, Gonzalo Ruiz on oboe, Sarah Freiburg (now-Ellison) on cello, Marilyn on bassoon, and John Butt on harpsichord.
We had so much fun just reading the pieces that we decided to put together a demo “tape” (really a tape back then!) to apply to perform on the SFEMS (San Francisco Early Music Society) series, and we were chosen for the next season. At that time we called ourselves, Bay Area Baroque Soloists (BABS), since we were all soloists in our own right but came together to perform chamber music. Our concert programs, from the very beginning, always included the bigger chamber works as well as trio- and solo-sonatas for different combinations of instruments, in order to make the most of the variety of instruments we had in the group.
In the meantime, I’d gotten a grant from the American Recorder Society to make a recording–the Bach organ trios I arranged for recorder, violin, and continuo. The performers were myself and Elizabeth Blumenstock, along with Elisabeth LeGuin (also from Philharmonia at the time) and my old friend from Princeton, Ed Parmentier on harpsichord. Since both Elizabeth B and I were involved, and BABS/Musica Pacifica-to be was still “gelling,” we decided to call this recording Musica Pacifica’s first.
Over the years, various people moved out of town one by one, so we had to regroup. We consolidated a bit, down to a core of five performers, which was easier and more cost-effective for touring. After working with Byron Schenkman on harpsichord for a while (our Marais and Telemann recordings), we eventually settled on Elizabeth, myself, Gonzalo, David Morris on cello and viola da gamba, and Charles Sherman on harpsichord, and remained pretty stable with this group for about the next 10 or 12 years.
Eventually, Gonzalo moved to Boston, so we regrouped again into a core of four performers. But we’ve always loved doing slightly larger chamber works, so most of our recordings and many of our concert programs include additional guest performers – adding singers, another violin or two, lute/guitar, and more recently percussion (which we’ve been loving, and which features prominently in our Dancing in the Isles CD!). Most recently, David Morris moved on, and we’ve been delighted to welcome the young and very talented Shirley Hunt on cello/viola da gamba as our newest member.
Although we’ve had our share of personnel changes, a common value that we’ve all shared over the years has been a very serious commitment to interesting programming and artistic excellence.
Q: If you had to pick just a couple tracks on Dancing in the Isles to talk about, what would they be and why?
Our arrangements of Bridget Cruise and The Mountain Rose are pretty good examples of what can be done with Irish tunes if you allow part-writing to tag along with the melodies – these melodies often work beautifully as solos, as duets, and even in four parts. Scotch Cap is a rollicking tune, and we are really happy with the way it sounds with the tune in the viola da gamba instead of up in the treble range – the gutsy gamba gives the piece such a nice swagger!
This is a really hard question for me, because I really love just about every track on this recording. It was so much fun to make!
I’m partial to the English country dance tunes, since I’ve been playing for dances for a number of years now. I’m afraid I can’t single out just one; I chose to include all these tunes because I really love all of them.
But for the sake of this interview, I’ll choose Irish Lamentation and Jack’s Maggot. Irish Lamentation is such a gorgeous and sweet tune—the English take on the Irish style. I love the violin solo in the beginning, with just lute; and then I love the accompanying “drone-y” violin part when the recorder has the melody.
Jack’s Maggot is so lively. It makes you want to kick up your heels and dance. And I love the improv in the violins and what they do when the recorder has the tune. And the percussion really adds to the whole effect when it comes in the third time around.
Of the Scots tunes, I think the haunting Johnnie Faa is just beautiful. Again, I love the violin drones, the slow arpeggiation in the lute, and the beautiful counter-melody and harmonies that Elizabeth wrote.
Of the Irish tunes, Planxty Toby Petyon and Larry O’Gaff are really fun for me. I like how Planxty starts simple with just violin and gamba and ramps up on each repeat of the tune, adding recorder, percussion, and everybody else. Then Larry O’Gaff is really really fun! I get to play whistle here for a more “folky” feel. I love how it starts with the rhythmic drone and the fabulous percussion part, and then really gets going with more and more instruments and more complicated counter-melodies to a rousing close.
Q: Please talk about the meeting place between folk music and “classical baroque” music.
I think that perhaps folk music and “classical baroque” music met on dance floors throughout Europe. Most baroque dances are rooted in much older and definitely “popular” dances, and in that sense, dance music is arguably folk music, however elegant and clever it might become to please upper classes eager to distance themselves from the hoi polloi.
Well, there is a limit to that argument. It’s quite difficult to frame Bach’s suites of dances for solo cello and solo violin as folk music!
Many baroque composers have had at least some degree of explicit interest in folk idioms. Telemann was familiar with Eastern European folk music, especially Polish and Moravian music, and was apparently even exposed to some vaguely Turkish-sounding music, all of which he imitated. He is reputed to have said, after listening to folk musicians play, “In eight days, a keen observer could gather enough ideas for a lifetime.”
Vivaldi appears to have heard a little gypsy music, based on the slow movements to his violin concerto “Il grosso mogul” and his concerto for multiple instruments, RV 562.
Johann Schmelzer wrote gavottes in the English, French, German, Styriacan, and Bavarian styles (“Balletti a quatro – Pastorella”); the first three are relatively refined while the latter two are quite rustic.
References to folk idioms and folk instruments occur in Handel’s “Messiah” (the Pifa), and Corelli’s Concerto per la notte di natale, both pastorales evoking the drone of the zampogna, an Italian bagpipe, and on and on.
On our CD, we include pieces by Oswald and Veracini, which are essentially Scots traditional tunes set in a “classical baroque” manner, that is, with basso continuo, sometimes with second treble lines creating a trio sonata texture, etc. This sort of hybrid may strike cultural snobs and “Real musicians have day jobs” bumper-sticker owners as, respectively, specious or effete, but we’ve enjoyed it a lot, and think most non-extremists will as well.
Q: Please tell us a bit about your collective improvisational efforts! How did you go about rehearsing and recording “more-or-less spontaneous” improvisations on your English Dancing Master selections?
This was really fun, because, especially in the beginning, things were always changing. I have to say, I’m not 100% sure how we did it. It kind of just worked out, but it went something like this.
We’d play through the tunes a few times with everybody playing and then decide on a “route” for the piece, such as, how we’d start it, who would take the melody first, when other parts would come in, etc.
I guess a general principle was to start out simply and then add instruments and parts gradually. Most “first-times-through” are just melody with bass and maybe percussion. We’d trade off playing the melody or improvising counter-melodies—quite similar to what’s done when one plays for actual dances.
Most of the time the counter-melodies just worked out; every now and then one person or another would have to “claim” a lick so we wouldn’t all do the same thing, and the others would have to make up something else. As it turns out, we each had our own “style” of ornamenting and improvising, and the styles seemed to fit together pretty well.
Every now and then, it turns out that two of us did play the same lick for a moment, but it didn’t seem to matter as long as it didn’t go on for too long that way. If it did, we talked about it and changed it! For the recording, we tended to fall into a general pattern of who did what when, and the pencil was, of course, a handy tool to help remember what (not) to play when!
Q: Could you describe your feelings about the appropriation of traditional music into today’s diverse musical styles (such as rock, pop, jazz, etc.)? Where do you feel Musica Pacifica’s efforts and the efforts of other active early music ensembles stand?
I can’t speak to this in a really thorough-going way, as I have not made a serious study of the ways in which traditional tunes have been handled by rock music, pop, jazz, etc. I am aware of examples of this use, of course; the ones that pop into my mind right now are Billy Joel’s “And So it Goes,” which is an utterly Irish-sounding tune, and the folky violin solo on Joel’s “The Downeaster Alexa” (credited hilariously to “world-famous incognito violinist” –wish I knew who it was!) are not actually examples of specific melodies being borrowed; it’s more that the fundamental style of the melodies is being used to evoke a mood, the spirit of a place and even, possibly, of a time.
It’s always hard to “describe feelings,” but my feelings about this are entirely positive! In the area of specifically Baroque performance, groups who have recorded some of this material have gone in various directions. For example, Chatham Baroque‘s lively and engaging CD The Reel of Tulloch shows what happens when traditional tunes are handled by Baroque stylists more or less adhering to a solo and trio sonata texture, while David Greenberg’s terrific Puirt A Baroque veers more into the wild and folky side of the music.
Musica Pacifica’s arrangements explore to some degree how much counter-melody “load” the tunes can take without losing their appeal. This is not at all likely to have been the way the tunes were originally performed, and Peter Maund’s use of African percussion instruments on our CD certainly puts us into a historically unlikely zone as well! People are inveterate tinkerers, though, combining and recombining elements into new forms for their pleasure. Look at dog and flower breeding, for example. This is all about cultural evolution through artificial selection, a direct analog to what nature does mindlessly. I’m not a purist, and I think this is a case of woe to the purists, as folk music is simply so irresistible that tinkering is guaranteed to happen, and I say more power to it!