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Lifestyle

April 11, 2013

A Gut Reaction to early music

Chamber ensemble to perform 'Baroque Treasures' at Salem Athenaeum

SALEM — When you go back in time, from the 18th to the 16th century, music starts to sound more modern.

“The music being written in Venice in the early 17th century was very experimental, it was self-consciously modern,” said Byron Schenkman, who will play harpsichord with the chamber ensemble Gut Reaction at the Salem Athenaeum on Saturday.

Schenkman has recorded more than 30 CDs of 17th- and 18th-century music, in some cases while playing on a harpsichord from a museum collection, including one from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He lives in Seattle but studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and practices with the four other, Boston-based members of Gut Reaction when he is in town.

Their concert, “Baroque Treasures of Venice: A Golden Evening on the Lagoon,” is sponsored by the Cambridge Society for Early Music and will feature music composed in Venice from roughly 1600 to 1750.

One of the pieces they will play, “Toccato” by Giovanni Picchi (1571 to 1643), was first published in The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, a 17th-century collection of compositions for keyboard.

“In the first modern edition of Fitzwilliam, published in 1900, in the introduction they called the piece ‘an absurd piece by an Italian composer otherwise unknown,’” Schenkman said.

That judgment applied a taste in music that hadn’t been formed when Picchi was writing, but which he was helping create.

“This was right at the period that operas were being invented, and they were interested in ways of manipulating people’s emotions,” Schenkman said. “They were interested in the idea that they could create any mood, that you could make someone happy and then suddenly sad.”

Such abrupt changes in tone, which struck an editor as “absurd” in 1900, sound contemporary in spirit to musicians today.

“The contrasts are what make the emotions vivid,” Schenkman said. “There’s sometimes a surprisingly free use of dissonance.”

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