Chamber group proves Baroque composers complex

Timothy Muffitt, Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra conductor and music director, called it a tour of Baroque Europe.

Muffitt and select members of the orchestra performed the all-Baroque concert, part of the Lamar Family Chamber Series, at the Manship Theatre. Featuring the music of six composers, the tour took concertgoers to Germany, England, France, the former central European kingdom known as Bohemia and, of course, the era’s cultural capital, Italy.

Both the music and the intimate venue were quite the contrast to Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra’s concerts of 19th- and 20th-century symphonic warhorses in the much larger River Center Theatre.

As important as Italian music is to the Baroque, the earlier composer of the night was French composer, violinist and dancer Jean-Baptiste Lully. Today, he’s best known for opera, but he composed many ballets, too, including “Le Triomphe de L’amour.”

Muffitt and the symphony musicians played a suite based on the Lully ballet, six brief movements of contrasting moods and tempos that suggested the movement of dancers on a stage from long, long ago.

Also on Muffitt’s tour, a visit to old Bohemia featured Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s unusual “Battalia.” Muffitt dropped concert-hall formality to explain that “Battalia” includes musical depictions of a battle. He also cited Biber as a renegade composer who used special effects to re-create the sounds of 17th-century war.

For “Battalia,” violinists and violists slapped their strings with bows. Musicians playing lower instruments plucked their strings. And Biber’s interpretation of drunken soldiers simultaneously singing an uncoordinated hodgepodge of songs anticipated 20th-century dissonance by 200 years.

As curious as Biber’s “Battalia” is, and as evocative as Lully’s ballet suite is, the concert’s more musically satisfying selections included Italian composer Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in D, Op. 6, No. 1.

Like Lully and Biber, Corelli was both violinist and composer. Beyond the superior artistry in the slow and fast movements of his concerto grosso, he exploited his instrumentalist’s knowledge by scoring well-placed technical displays for violin and cello.

Baroque suites being so heavily linked with dance, Henry Purcell, the 17th-century Englishman regarded as his country’s greatest Baroque composer, included a hornpipe, a jig and a bourrĂ©e in his suite based on his music for the play “The Old Bachelor.” The play’s incidental music, veering from graceful to gallant, also includes a movement titled “Thus to a ripe consenting maid.” That segment of music, interesting though it may be, didn’t make it into Thursday’s program.

Two giants of the Baroque, George Frideric Handel and J.S. Bach, were unevenly represented in Thursday’s performance. Handel’s relatively minor piece, Concerto Grosso in B-flat, Op. 6, No. 7, pales next to his famous operas and oratorios. It’s a brief work whose five movements tend to end in truncated fashion, as if Handel was knocking some music out on a tight deadline.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G, however, is justifiably loved and famous. The composer’s life-affirming, circling melodies in the two outer movements spiral from player the player. Thursday’s unusual stage setting – violinists and violists played standing throughout the concert – made the wondrous energy and imagination in Bach’s music all the more obvious.