You hear a musician use the words radical, experimental, avant-garde, and you think that the subject must be some young composer or newly minted piece that stretches, even threatens, our understanding of music’s boundaries. But it comes as something of a shock when the topic is, instead, music that’s a few centuries old.
Yet violinist Robert Mealy uses those words to describe the repertoire of the ensemble he codirects, Quicksilver, formed in 2009 to explore early Baroque chamber music. The ensemble made its local debut in an 11:30 p.m. slot at the 2011 Boston Early Music Festival. (“It was great — like a late-night jazz set,” Mealy said in a recent phone conversation.) They return on Saturday with a more conventionally scheduled show in the BEMF concert series.
“I think we’re all really interested in making this music as new as it was then,” said Mealy. By “this music,” he meant what composers and theorists in the 17th century called “stile moderno,” or modern style.
One exemplar of this style is the instrumental sonata, which would become a critically important vehicle for chamber music in the 1600s. This music is “about sudden disjunctions, sharp contrasts of tempo, of mood, of key, of instrumentation. There are sudden changes between a whole ensemble and then just one soloist having a tragic lament by itself.”
The Baroque sonata’s intense theatricality is part of what made it such a radical, experimental genre. The other part is the fact that it was also, Mealy noted, the first completely abstract form of music in history. “This is the first time that people were writing music that did not reflect a text, it did not work in a dance form, it had no preconceived structure,” he explained. “It was this entirely free discourse among the players. And the idea that there could be a wordless rhetoric was something fascinating to them and, I think, fascinating to us — that we can have this discourse in music without a single word.”
Quicksilver’s 2011 BEMF concert focused on the origins of the sonata form in Italy and included a lot of composers little known to us today. Saturday’s concert tells the second part of the story, in which Italian composers, driven by plague and badly paid employment, crossed the Alps toward Vienna and parts of Germany. “They’re bringing this new art form and new virtuosity, which German composers are then responding to,” said Mealy. “And what’s happening is that the architecture gets much bigger and much stranger, in a way, with the Germans.
“There’s an amazing kind of passionate melancholy about a lot of this music,” he continued. “It’s completely understandable in light of the complications of the 17th century, given the fact that a third of the German population died during the wars of that time.” Like the Italian composers on the ensemble’s last program, many on Saturday’s concert are obscure, with Dietrich Buxtehude being the only “name” composer.
Much of this music is also relentlessly difficult to play — not just virtuosic but hyper-virtuosic. Mealy said that many Baroque sonatas are especially demanding on a violinist’s bowing arm. He mentioned feeling twinges in his right arm recently; he consulted a physical therapist, who asked if he’d been using that arm to make a lot of short, sharp motions. “I’ve got tennis elbow from 17th-century music,” he laughed.
He paraphrased a dictum of composer Louis Couperin: “You want to move them as well as astonish them. It’s high performance music; it’s music to astonish an emperor in his court room. But it’s also music to delight each other. As long as we’re astonishing each other and delighting each other, I think we’re on the right track.”
Nicholas Kitchen has been at the vanguard of using technology in performance. The Borromeo String Quartet, of which he is first violinist, plays from laptops rather than from music on paper, and uses computer programs for tuning and metronome speeds.
So when Kitchen performs all six of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin — some of the oldest solo violin music in the repertoire — at New England Conservatory on Sunday, he will bring along some modern tools to enhance the concert experience. He plans to project images of Bach’s manuscript on a screen for the entire concert. For his performance of the D minor Partita’s famous Chaconne movement, the manuscript will show the piece broken down into 64 cycles of four bars each. Kitchen will also use videos to illuminate what he calls the “high technique of architecture” in the pieces, and to make his case that the sonatas and partitas are a carefully constructed cycle of works rather than six individual pieces.
And yet, Kitchen’s artistic aim in the concert remains the traditional one of unlocking and communicating the music’s spiritual essence, he wrote in an e-mail. “Most important is that these are soaring sound visions of what a violin can communicate, and that is mostly what I hope will come across.”