Elis renew sounds of forgotten Baroque

The ornate and sometimes-forgotten sounds of the Baroque era are being revived at Yale.

The Yale Baroque Orchestra will make its debut performance at Trinity Lutheran Church on the corner of Orange and Wall streets at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.

The Yale Baroque Orchestra, which will make its debut performance tonight, practices last night.
Dounia Bredes
The Yale Baroque Orchestra, which will make its debut performance tonight, practices last night.

Featuring the students of Music 227, “Rhetoric and Early String Performance,” accompanied by harpsichord players from Music 226, “Continuo Realization and Performance,” the concert will be both the final project for students of Music 227 and an attempt to bring back to Yale the emphasis on music performed in a manner reflecting a historical style.

Sponsored by the Department of Music and under the direction of Robert Mealy, the professor who teaches Music 227, tonight’s performance will feature Baroque pieces written in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Works by Corelli, Purcell, Vivaldi and Handel will be performed by the undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in both classes.

Music of the Baroque era is the focus of Music 227, whose students meet once a week to rehearse and put into practice their study of the techniques and styles that have historically characterized string performance, Mealy said.

“[The class] is a description of how people played back then and thought about music at the time,” he said.

The goal of the course is for students to convey the sentiments and sensations of traditional Baroque music.

“That’s what their goal was, and I guess that’s what our goal is, too — to portray different emotions and moods as best as we can,” Laura Usiskin MUS ’09 said. “Their music was very passionate and very emotional — but not romantic.”

Recreating these emotions and moods today in the same way that Baroque musicians did in the 17th and 18th centuries, however, requires a certain amount of guesswork, Usiskin said.

“There were very different instruments [used in the Baroque era], even different ways of holding the instruments and rules about how to play them,” Usiskin said. “All of that disappeared over time. There are no recordings of what it sounded like. All we can do is guess, based on music, pictures and the instruments.”

The class is part of the Yale Baroque Opera Project, a new initiative designed by the Department of Music to emphasize playing in the historical style, Music 226 professor Ilya Poletaev said. The initiative is funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The harpsichord players who will accompany Mealy’s students in tonight’s debut are part of a class devoted to the study of Baroque continuo playing, the keyboard accompaniment that provides harmony to a piece, Poletaev said.

“[It is] a specific type of realizing and improvising harmonies that are indispensable to any 17th- or 18th-century piece,” he said.

Yet, grasping this performance style has not been easy for the students of Music 226, Poletaev said.

“Unfortunately, although [continuo] is most commonly performed on organ or keyboard, training on these instruments has not been a part of the curriculum that all of the students have had thus far,” he said. “They are mostly new to this, so it is very important to continue this work.”

Agnes Coakley ’08, a cellist enrolled in Music 227, admitted that the Yale Baroque Orchestra debut is not likely to attract a wide audience.

“I have a feeling the audience is just likely to be our friends more than anybody else,” she said. “But if other people come, that’d be great too.”

Regardless of audience size, Mealy said that Baroque music, which is based on the rhythms of dance music, is still relevant.

“It’s very appealing,” he said. “It was designed to entertain and to move audiences, and I think it does that today as much as it did in the 18th century.”

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