, Salem, MA

April 11, 2013

A Gut Reaction to early music

Chamber ensemble to perform 'Baroque Treasures' at Salem Athenaeum

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — 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.”

But these effects would disappear by the time Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was composing his “Concerto for Strings in E Minor,” which Gut Reaction will also play on Saturday.

“Over the course of the 17th century, new rules emerged and new ways of structuring music, so it became more formal again,” Schenkman said. “By the time you get to Vivaldi, it starts to sound more ‘normal,’ it’s more baroque-sounding.”

If early music like Picchi’s is filled with surprises, playing it on instruments from the periods in which it was written also leads to revelations.

“In the case of stringed instruments there’s a lower bridge, and less of an angle in the neck, which translates into less tension on the string,” Schenkman said.

Their strings were also made of animal gut instead of steel, which gives the group its name and is an important source of their sound.

“With the gut strings and lower tensions, it’s a subtler, more mellow sound — there’s more variety of tone color in the sound,” Schenkman said. “The ideal with modern instruments is to have one consistent sound that’s sustained. The instrument evolved for playing in great big concert halls, to project to the last row of the balcony.”

Such considerations are irrelevant at the Salem Athenaeum, which is the perfect venue for playing early music on period instruments, Schenkman said.

“Salem Athenaeum is an acoustically gorgeous place to play,” he said. “There’s a lot of wood, and enough room for the sound to blossom without getting lost. But it’s a small-enough space, with enough intimacy so you can hear the subtlety of the instruments. The instruments depend on the acoustics of the room.”

Such instruments and acoustics “gives the players a different kind of palette to work with,” Schenkman said. “The aesthetics are different with the earlier period. You don’t want the sound to be the same. Some notes are stronger, some weaker. There’s more inflection.”

Early music was often written in a way that allows musicians to exploit the rich tones of period instruments.

“Especially in the earlier parts of the 17th century, there’s a lot of flexibility in performance,” Schenkman said. “There’s some room for improvisation, and a lot of room for performers’ discretion. With this repertoire, in the score, what we’re often given is kind of a sketch.”

With a group of musicians like Gut Reaction, that freedom can make for a dynamic performance.

“One of the things I love about playing this kind of music, with a dynamic ensemble like this, is we can play differently one night to the next,” Schenkman said. “So each piece is being created in performance. That doesn’t happen with most classical music.”

If you go What: "Baroque Treasures of Venice: A Golden Evening on the Lagoon," with Gut Reaction, sponsored by Cambridge Society of Early Music Where: Salem Athenaeum, 337 Essex St. When: Saturday, 8 p.m. More information: Tickets at the door, $30 (Athenaeum members and seniors, $25; students with ID free), cash or check only. Tickets by credit card at Visit, call 617-489-2062 or email