Alexandra MacCracken and Ensemble Gaudior
Ensemble Gaudior is one of the latest early music groups to venture forth with an initial outing on their own label. Formed in Washington, D.C., over a decade ago, it has been guided by violinist Alexandra MacCracken, who wanted to develop a group that would focus on chamber music of the 18th century. A versatile performer, she is the guiding light behind the organization, which hopes to develop into one of the best-known American ensembles in the movement, presenting chamber music of the Baroque era in an accessible and lively manner.
Q: Ensemble Gaudior is a new group to me, although your notes on its first recording indicate that it was founded back in 2000. How did it come into existence?
A: I had always wanted to play the violin, because I loved the sound of it; but in fourth grade, when it came time for me to start, my school had run out of rental violins, so they asked if I would like to try the viola. I said, “What’s that?” and my teacher answered, “It’s the underdog instrument, and needs someone strong and brave to play it.” This was exactly the right thing to say to get me involved, because through my father—who was from Tennessee, and was a real live cowboy on TV known as “Cactus Jim”—I am a descendent of both Davy Crockett and Dan’l Boone. I then spent many years playing the viola until, as an adult, I came to a musical crossroads and realized I could now fulfill my childhood passion to play the violin—and so I finally made the switch. When I did, a colleague here in Washington, D.C., said to me, “Why don’t you give a recital?” So I invited a couple of other people to join me, and Ensemble Gaudior was born.
Q: Having read Madeleine L’Engle’s book, I understand the philosophy behind the musical unicorn, but how did this appeal to you when choosing a name for the ensemble?
A: I firmly believe that we are all here to share our gifts with each other, and the character Gaudior appealed to my imagination as an intersection of several meaningful trajectories: time traveling (imagination, fantasy, creativity, and excitement), carrying children to safety (useful and fulfilling), and making harmony with the music of the spheres (sublime!). I have a vision of our music becoming a means (an energy flow) of doing something similar!
Q: You have had a rather extensive career in the United States as a soloist on the baroque violin. Do you still concertize solo and with other early instrument groups?
A: I do play with other groups such as Bach Sinfonia and the Washington Bach Consort; however, my real passion is in chamber music, and I love the magic of connecting with other musicians in a small group. We will be performing in the metropolitan Washington area this year, and a highlight will be our fringe concert at the Boston Early Music Festival in June.
Q: This disc is entitled
Masters of the Baroque
, which seems appropriate for the major personages therein, but why did you come to choose it for your premiere recording on your own label?
A: We wanted to give a broad sampling of who we are, as well as the kinds of music we love. Although these pieces are widely known, we believe that each group that plays them brings its own collaborative musical DNA to bear, and the genius of these composers gets a different-colored light shined on it. I also liked the
of the title: The implication is that we, as well as the composers whose music we chose, are masters of the baroque repertoire and style. As for how we came to make the recording, we were invited by a local church to showcase their fine harpsichord, a single-manual instrument masterfully crafted by Lynette Tsiang, which was based on a Ruckers instrument in a museum in Edinburgh. Thus an opportunity arose!
Q: According to your website, there are four performers that make up Gaudior, but do you have more at hand in case you wish to do larger chamber works?
A: Gaudior is a flexible group, whose personnel vary depending on the repertoire we choose. I personally love variety and experimenting with different sound combinations, so it’s really fun to enter different sonic worlds. Our core instrumentation is baroque violin and continuo, but right now, for example, we are working on a program of classical string trios, including the monumental Beethoven op. 9/3 in C Minor, his “Storm the Heavens” key. What a phenomenal piece! The first time I read it, I felt that I had just been playing one of the symphonies! I’m fortunate that there are many fine musicians in the Washington area who play on period instruments. So far, we have not gone into chamber orchestra material, but I have some ideas for that, too.
Q: In an era where period instrument players and groups, both large and small, abound, how do think Ensemble Gaudior will stand apart?
A: Our group is based on a relationship of collaboration and creative discovery, and we attract musicians of high quality with playful and daring spirits. Each musician has their own distinctive personality, which then combines with that of the others in the group to synthesize a new sonic creation in each moment. The success of this process is based on the level of their ability to inspire, encourage, suggest, and correct each other with a delicate hand.
Another distinctive feature of Ensemble Gaudior is described in the group’s mission statement, which appears on all of our concert programs: “My chief end in presenting these concerts can be summed up in J. S. Bach’s motto ‘Soli Deo Gloria:’ to celebrate, glorify, and enjoy God forever, who included music among all the gifts of creation.” Because I interpret this to mean both connecting with and serving others, following it has taken us to a wide variety of venues, from formal concert halls to behind prison walls, where the audience is not constrained by conventions and is quick to respond to this ‘other and old’ world of music which is new to them. As John O’Donohue, the recently deceased Irish mystic and poet, remarked in his book
, this basic connection of sharing the language of beauty is a gentle but urgent call to awaken every heart.
Q: The repertory of the first disc is fairly conservative (with lots of other recordings available of all of the works). Will you be exploring this repertory in a new way, or will the ensemble strike out into the world of lesser-known composers and works?
A: Both! I think it is important to play both kinds of works, because the lesser-known repertoire provides a kind of cultural context for the better-known masterpieces. What is in our collective ears? What are the familiar and reassuring tonalities? What is unusual and worth bringing to the light? An example of exploring a new approach to a familiar piece was our performance of the Bach A-Major Violin Sonata using an oboe d’amore in place of the right hand of the harpsichord; that was very enlightening! As for lesser-known composers, last year I played some music by Johann Gottlieb Janitsch, a double bass player at the court of Frederick the Great who delighted in writing for various non-standard combinations of instruments, which is always interesting and fun to hear; and the music was very good! I often wonder if we don’t sometimes get caught in a loop of accepting and preferring the familiar, while resisting anything new. Not all of us, of course! Our goal in this CD is to bring our unique realization to these timeless scores, another fresh look.
Q: What made you choose the particular compositions on this disc?
A: When the opportunity to make this recording arose, these were pieces that we had recently performed and we knew they were very strong works. Therefore, they were perfect choices for the CD deadline. My favorite is the Biber Passacaglia for unaccompanied violin, known as
The Guardian Angel
, which is one of my “Soul Songs.” When performing it, I often tell the audience that for me the musical metaphor of the ground bass is like the footsteps of a pilgrim journeying through life. As life progresses there are sweet and lovely times, and there are painful times, but the presence of the Guardian Angel is constant, accompanying the pilgrim’s footsteps. Sometimes one even hears the swoosh of wings.
Q: How is the repertory, past, present, and future, determined? What would you like to explore further from this age?
A: That’s a big question! Actually, there are several ways to approach the choice of repertoire. We often have chosen to focus on music from one particular country, such as France, Italy, or Austria. Sometimes I like to base a concert on a particular theme, such as music from Thomas Jefferson’s library played on his birthday. Another approach is to observe some kind of notable musical anniversary, as we did in 2009 with an all-Haydn program. And then there are those serendipitous finds of some relatively obscure composer who comes to one’s attention and is worthy of a hearing. (My husband is a musicologist, and an invaluable resource for researching and suggesting repertory.) Sometimes we have a fine guest artist who has a specialty to showcase. I’ve recently been thinking of adding more Rococo and Classical music to our basically Baroque repertoire—and next year is a C. P. E. Bach anniversary. And a few years ago, I was on a Leclair kick; his pieces are so charmingly French and idiomatically written for the violin, plus I find them to be very poignant in their harmonies. It may be time to go back and play a few more of them!
Q: Why go with your own label?
A: The invitation to make this recording originally came from a large church in the metro D.C. area that wanted to showcase their beautiful harpsichord, as I noted earlier. They had already done several other recordings featuring their organ and choir, so they made all the arrangements. It was an interesting process, and we all learned a lot.
Q: Is the ensemble free standing or is it part of an academic program?
A: It is free standing, although I did once have an academic affiliation, I have been a freelancer for most of my musical career. I wanted to form the ensemble because I love chamber music so much—it is one of my main passions. So in 1999, after arranging some salon-like opportunities for playing to invited audiences, I was encouraged to become more focused in the endeavor, especially when several people said they wanted to join me.
Q: What future plans do you foresee for the ensemble?
A: I believe music and the arts can be a bridge by which people can connect for the purpose of building collaboration and peace. So I’m always seeking to continue that through various means. I would like to venture more into creative situations, where we are more connected with the audience, where we can edify the listener, realize the beauty of the music, and release it for them. That may mean introducing some of our favorites to people new to baroque and classical music, or presenting delightful discoveries to more sophisticated listeners. I am rather passionate about the idea that there is real enjoyment and even healing to be had from this music, and I feel that this world could use some respite from all the heartache that being alive often incurs.
I have been exploring healing modalities using Gestalt methods in a practice called Gestalt Pastoral Care, and I want to find a way to integrate my new practice of GPC into my musical expression. Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt, says that our bodies are always talking, that they never lie, and that our emotions reside in our bodies. So if we have an emotional response to a piece of music, our bodies are inevitably involved. Therefore, one question for the audience could be “Where do you experience this music in your body?” or “What happened for you while you listened? What memories, emotions, spiritual responses, etc., did you have?”I think it would be revolutionary for the audience to have an aware physical experience with the music; for example, what is happening with your breath and heartbeat as you listen to the Guardian Angel? I could imagine a concert in which two or three people would be ready to share with the others their physical journey through the music. I believe there would be real healing inherent in physically experiencing the paradox of music, which is both rule bound, really anchored both harmonically and structurally, and at the same time exuberantly and joyfully free. Our culture needs to creatively celebrate all that is possible for the human spirit to embrace.
Q: What are the future works that we can look forward to from the ensemble?
A: The future has not revealed itself yet, and I am excited to see what unfolds as we continue to work with presenters and talk with audiences. I do have a dream of having a chamber orchestra from time to time, and of having a home base, such as a chapel with great acoustics, from which to operate. My real dream is to have a different kind of concert experience, and also to create some kind of mechanism for helping other musicians in our culture, which mostly doesn’t understand, appreciate, or support the arts. Stay tuned, as we say in the string world!
Q: To what sort of audience do you think the Ensemble will appeal?
A: In addition to the people who already know, love, and appreciate art music, I want us to somehow reach audiences that have not yet become acquainted with art music per se. It is very exciting for me to watch someone discover and fall in love with a new kind of beauty, with that universal human recognition of beauty that we all have. Most people know something fine when they encounter it, and are interested in learning more about it. For instance, there are wine and cigar aficionados, so why not cultivate more classical music aficionados? I often like to joke that at least music is not fattening or otherwise bad for your health! And just as people love to see a good sports game well played, why couldn’t more people learn to appreciate the coordination, collaboration, and cooperation of a musical “team” that is performing these incredible musical acrobatics? There is something very rewarding about both doing it and experiencing the beauty of the musical result, and the interesting part for me is connecting with our listeners—and seeing the fabric of this endeavor unfold.
Q: I was very impressed with the focus of the recording, particularly in the Handel and Vivaldi sonatas. Even the rather demanding virtuoso passages were performed with fine nuancing and taste. Do you believe this is what the composers intended for such intimate chamber works, and how have your audiences reacted during the live performances?
A: I enjoy the challenge of playing virtuosic music with nuance, and I also feel that chamber music is by its very nature an intimate genre. For me, what that word implies is closeness, and the requisites for successful closeness in my world are comfort, safety, consideration, freedom, creativity, and fun! I feel that every artist has their own personality that is inextricably manifested in their artistic expression—you can tell a lot about someone just by seeing and hearing them perform for 30 seconds—and therefore everyone has a responsibility for bringing their own gift to the table. So I see it as a dialog in which the composer sets up a supposition, or postulation. The performer then responds by empathically musing upon and embracing that musical idea, inevitably adding their own spin to the sense and meaning, breathing into it an enlarged view of the musical structure, and bringing this ephemeral art to life in the
time of “now.” I have often heard audience members say, “You
the music.” I don’t know exactly what the composers had in mind, but they have left a trail of notes, and I love the challenge of turning that trail of notes into an expressive and meaningful presentation of music.
MASTERS OF THE BAROQUE
Ens Gaudior; Elena Tsai (hpd
); Alexandra MacCracken, dir
ENSEMBLE GAUDIOR (72:24)
Sonata in A,
Prelude and fugue in F, BWV 880.
Sonata No. 4 in c,
Pièces de clavessin:
Allemande; Rigaudons 1-2.
Passacaglia in g.
Sonatas in A,
Sonata in c,
Independently issued CD, available at CD Baby and Ensemble Gaudior’s website.
The public recording debut of a new group can be a real challenge, particularly if it has been around for over a decade and decided that this release is to be on their own label. Ensemble Gaudior, named after a unicorn who romps about time and space with the music of the spheres, may seem a bit serendipitous, but the eclectic program chosen for this debut represents a nice focus on chamber music that is sure to intrigue the listener.
All of the major names are there, and one can find many recordings of each of the works that appear on the disc, but the trio of Alexandra MacCracken on violin, Daniel Rippe on cello, and Elena Tsai on harpsichord has put together a well-balanced series that plays to their strengths as both soloists and ensemble. Of particular note is the Passacaglia in G Minor by Heinrich Biber for solo violin. The spare descending line of four notes is both solemn and mysterious, and just to keep things honest it returns several times throughout, bookmarking and interceding with the more virtuoso variations. The technique required for this set of ostinato variations is impressive but never overwhelms the slow march of the bass line. The nickname for this is the “Guardian Angel,” referring to an engraving in the source. The result is something quite ethereal, even poignant at times, whatever the virtuosity necessary. Harpsichordist Tsai is given three sets of solo pieces, only one of which is a complete entity. This is the Prelude and Fugue in F Major, BWV 880, by Johann Sebastian Bach, which begins with a rather tortuous prelude containing bits of melody that surface repeatedly from the different voices. It is polyphony requiring focus to understand the complex melodic interrelationships, while the fugue that follows has a rather nice, jaunty line, almost like the composer was playing with a mixture of counterpoint and Courante. It is also surprisingly short, at under two minutes. The two pieces by Jean-Philippe Rameau are excerpted from the
Pièces de Clavessin
of 1724. The opening Allemande is stately, while the two Rigadouns are lively country dances that are calculated to make the fingers jump with dexterity through pointed bass lines and twisting trills and ornaments. The two harpsichord sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti in A Major (K 208-209) are meant as a two-piece sequence, the first based upon a somewhat plodding bass that anchors the more lyrical melody, while the second is a well-known work that begins with leaping fifths and octaves and has a short interlocutory slow section before the entire thing speeds back up for the recapitulation.
All of these bookend three sonatas; in A Major by George Fredrick Handel (HWV 361), in C Minor by Bach (BWV 1017), and in C Minor by Vivaldi (RV 6). Each of these is in the typical four-movement format of pairs of slow-fast tempos. But here the similarity ends. The Handel work is decidedly more “modern,” in that it has a more active bass part, is more homophonic, and makes less demands on the violin, which is a participant rather than obvious soloist. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the rollicking gigue that concludes it. Bach begins his sonata with a lilting Siciliano that flows gently above a susurrating harpsichord accompaniment. The final movement here could have been plucked directly out of a
with its perpetual motion sequencing. The Vivaldi, on the other hand, is a type of miniature suite, based upon a series of stylized dances. The violin predominates above a relentless ostinato in the first movement, while the second
has the violin emerge in its lower register, appearing from a suspensive harmony like a creature of the night stalking forth. Both faster sections feature Vivaldi’s penchant for display in the violin, though without the virtuosity required for the concertos.
Upon first listening, the performances on the recording may seem somewhat immediate, with an emphasis on grabbing the listener’s attention immediately rather than luring him into a work. A second listening found a delightful unfolding of the works with careful and finely detailed interpretations. For my taste, this is all the more necessary in chamber music, which is meant to be intimate and immediate. Ensemble Gaudior also has a nice sense of energy, and I enjoy their nuanced performances of these works. Tsai is precise and her ornamentation flows into the line, rather than being a calculated afterthought, while cellist Rippe offers a solid support, particularly in the Handel. Of course, the focus is on violinist MacCracken, who offers a spirited and enthusiastic performance. For a first outing, this is a fine disc and one would not go awry in adding it to a collection of chamber works of this period. It does augur more things to come that could expand the repertory of both the ensemble and the vast world of intimate baroque chamber music in a way that will make a great contribution to our knowledge of the period.
Bertil van Boer