Musica Pacifica is an early-music instrumental ensemble that performs around Northern California. On Wednesday, March 16, its four members and guest violinist Laura Risk brought a particularly enticing program to the First Baptist Church in Palo Alto.
The theme was baroque and traditional music from the British Isles. These two types of music make a tangy combination. “Baroque” here doesn’t mean complex Bach fugues or monumental Handel oratorios. These Baroque pieces were suites for small ensemble, consisting of courtly dances and lyrical airs, by composers like Matthew Locke and the Italian immigrant Nicola Mattheis, whose tumbling canons in his Suite in A for two violins and continuo was particularly delightful.
These pieces, including a somber and complex fantasia by the great Henry Purcell, were interleaved with sets of dances and instrumental songs from Scotland, Ireland, England and — surprise! — Quebec, to give Risk a chance to play the music of her home. Some of these tunes were not published until the 20th century, and a few were not even written until then, but they all have a Baroque feel to them, of elaborate courtliness.
Many of these dance tunes are extremely catchy melodies, and one — the English dance “Hole in the Wall” — is actually from an opera by Purcell and might be familiar that way. It formed a kind of bridge between the two styles, as did a longer piece that melded them: an anonymous Scottish “sonata” (more of a suite, really) based on a folk tune, taking it through various Baroque dance forms such as the sarabande and gavotte.
The result was less a conversation between the two styles than a recognition that they formed a continuum, in their intricacies and their grace. The relationship was especially evident in comparing the two violinists. Elizabeth Blumenstock’s classical violin training gave her a lighter, more controlled air than Risk’s looser and more growling folk style. Each of them played one work unaccompanied, proving a richness of sound could be achieved even solo. Most of the music, though, was for the full ensemble, and here the violins, as in those Mattheis canons, were well-matched.
Judith Linsenberg on various-sized recorders, sometimes switching from high treble to deep bass between movements, completed the melody instruments.
The continuo — occasionally, in some of the more modern arrangements, changing to a more contemporary accompaniment — was provided by two players. David Morris alternated between cello and the similar but more subdued pre-modern instrument, the viola da gamba, and Katherine Heater played harpsichord. Though the instrument had no lid, the harpsichord sound was extremely subdued, almost inaudible except in the rare solo.
The sound throughout was warm and lively. The playing was brisk and energetic, a little bustling, a little chaotic, with the recorder entering and dipping in to the melodic lines established by the violins. The violins were gut-stringed instruments, which added to the authenticity of the sound but which, especially in changeable early spring weather, required frequent retuning.
Musica Pacifica’s next local concert will be Friday, May 20, again in Palo Alto, featuring Bach’s popular Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, the one with the trumpet, plus concertos by Vivaldi, Telemann and Fasch.