Review: The Alberta Baroque Ensemble ushers in spring with verve, swing and new work by Allan Gilliland

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The Alberta Baroque Ensemble celebrated the first day of spring in style on Sunday, opening and closing their entertaining concert with two very different types of swing.

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Musical creation at the Robertson-Wesley United Church began with a Baroque work of splendid verve and rhythm: the first movement of the Sinfonia in A major by Bohemian composer Johann Stamitz.

Stamitz is best known as one of the founders of the late Baroque school of Mannheim, precursors of the dynamic effects of the classical period. The Symphony in A minor for strings and continuo was one of his first works for the Court of Mannheim, written in the 1740s.

The first movement has echoes of Vivaldi in its conduct, but with the dynamic contrasts and rhythmic excitement that are such appealing elements of Mannheim’s style. His pulse, his sense of joy and his sense of baroque swing could not have been better to usher in spring.

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It was performed under the direction of Paul Schieman with the verve and accuracy he needed — the only regret is that it did not include the other two movements of the Sinfonia, because, if they are not as surprising than the opening, they are worth hearing.

For the next work, the 12-string players and harpsichordist were joined by guest Elizabeth Koch, principal flute of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Here she played a modern keyed metal flute, but with a wooden mouthpiece.

She chose a relative rarity, the Flute Concerto in A minor by 18th-century French composer Michel Blavet. He was a flautist at the Paris Opera and introduced new ways of playing the flute. Curiously, it was his only flute concerto, an elegant work with virtuoso writing in the first and last movements, complete with quasi-mini cadenzas that Koch dispatched with his usual guarantee of tone and technique.

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The most striking music in the concerto was the middle movement, rather old-fashioned for its time by pairing two gavottes and featuring calls and responses between soloist and orchestra.

It was followed by what was essentially a first programmatic symphonic poem. Teleman’s music was eclipsed in the popular imagination by his contemporary Vivaldi, but the music of this prolific German composer deserves to be much better known.

The pieces that the Alberta Baroque Ensemble performed from their Suite in G major, “Burlesque de Don Quichotte”, would be an excellent introduction to their music. They vividly depict scenes from the life of the famous fictional Spanish knight, beginning after an overture with him waking up and ending with him falling back to sleep as if the whole proceedings were actually a dream within a dream.

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The most entertaining were the sounds of Sancho Panza’s donkey (the strings had fun here), and the gallops of Don Quixote’s donkey and horse, with the dizzying, dizzying rhythms of a child’s rocking horse .

The final work, which saw the return of flautist Koch and violinist Susan Flook, transported us two and a half centuries into the present, but still had intentional connections to Baroque music.

Contrafactus by Allan Gilliland, subtitled Concerto for flute, violin, strings and basso continuo, is the fourth work commissioned from the composer by the ensemble. It was actually written two years ago, but was getting its first performance here, as the premiere was delayed by the pandemic.

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Gilliland is both a jazz and classical composer. He explained that the title refers to a jazz technique where new tunes are grafted onto existing chord progressions. He sees a parallel between baroque music and jazz, and so in this concerto he tried the same technique, putting new tunes on baroque orchestral progressions.

Thus, the opening movement was inspired by Bach’s Bourée in E minor and the middle air movement on a G-String, while the final movement had strong suggestions of a jazz piece, the Rondo to Turk by Brubeck.

The result was an entertaining mix of baroque and jazz, with the pulse of Latin dance beats and a touch of minimalism. Flook’s violin regularly rubbed shoulders with the string orchestra, while Koch’s flute, thanks to its different color, played against it.

In the middle of the movement, Gilliland’s long-winded new track had something of the feel of a 1960s Broadway musical, while there were nuances of Keith Jarret and Jacques Loussier in the final movement.

It was an imaginative and fun way to end the enjoyable concert, showing not only the musicality of the soloists, but also the strict discipline and committed playing of the ensemble.


Alberta Baroque Ensemble

Driver: Paul Schiemann

Soloists: Susan Flook and Elizabeth Koch

Or: Robertson–Wesley United Church, 10209 123 St.

When: March 20th

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About Roy B. Westling

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