Saturday, April 4, 2009

Baroque Improvisation, Darkness, and the Blues

Yesterday, my sister and brother-in-law gave me a ticket to join them at Disney Hall for a concert of Handel and Haydn. I felt run-down and exhausted and fighting some very minor cold, but I agreed to go. I love Handel's music, and this was his "Organ Concerto in D Minor," no less. That meant I'd be able to hear the massive Disney Hall organ again. Last spring, I saw Terry Riley's organ recital there, which was a great trip through the many Riley worlds and the many stops of this deliberately Fantasia-like instrument.

The pleasant surprise was that Handel wrote improvisational sections into the score of the organ concerto. In the book Improvisation, free-music guitarist Derek Bailey described this wonderful but lesser-known feature of baroque music. "In all styles of baroque, whatever period, whatever country, improvisation was always present, integrated into both the melodic and harmonic fabric of the music...[t]o decorate, to supplement, to vary, to embellish, to improve...." (Bailey, p. 21, emphasis in the original). As the conductor Bernard Labadie explained in the pre-show chat, Handel quite sincerely notated portions as "ad lib" for the organ.

And the fifteen-minute concerto did not disappoint. The French-Canadian organist, Richard Paré, performed well, adding--I swear--the most subtle blues chords at certain points. It caused momentary dissonance, which is not a criticism in the slightest. That's the beauty of improvisation. This might be only a subjective and "unprofessional" view of the music, but I like to think that Paré explores whatever connections exist between blues tonality and ancient music. Perhaps he does this inadvertently.

Haydn's "Violin Concerto in C" gave me a renewed appreciation of the sound of the bow against the strings. As my brother-in-law pointed out, every seat in Disney Hall affords good acoustics, but our seats were, nonetheless, really good. Every slight sound from those four violin strings was clear.

The second half of the program was Haydn's "The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross," which featured an actor reading the New Testament verses that describe Jesus's last moments. Labadie explained beforehand that Haydn's piece was composed for a certain church in Spain that would bring the lights down completely within the sanctuary save one chandelier during the performance. For similar effect, he had Disney Hall bring down all the house lights. The only illumination came from the musicians' music stands and the legally-required emergency footlights leading us to the exits (in case of disaster). I wondered why more classical concerts aren't presented in darkness like this.

With the reverie of the darkness and the music, I am proud of myself for remaining awake through most of hour-long piece. I was moved by William Christian's reading (aptly named!), but just got too comfortable not to give in to sleep. The applause woke me up. I felt no guilt.

Work Cited:
Bailey, Derek. Improvisation. New York: Da Capo, 1992.

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