Other Voices, Other Echoes: The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble

By Rob Tomaro

Wouldn't it be something to hop in a time machine and walk into a candlelit concert hall in Vienna in 1738 just in time to see Johann Sebastian Bach perform his new smash hit "Ach das ich Wassers gnug hatte"?   The crowd goes wild.  Play it again, Johann!

The next best thing is to walk into an old stone chapel in Wisconsin a few nights ago and hear pretty much exactly what his music sounded like that night in Vienna so long ago.

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble performs on authentic instruments from the High Renaissance and Baroque eras:  harpsichord, recorder, baroque bassoon, baroque violins and violas and, my favorite, the viola da gamba.   The musicians coax sounds out of them that float across the centuries to us, delicate, odd to our ears, subtly passionate and, in their own way, wild, wild with delight.   These ancient things must be tuned constantly onstage.  They protest.  They groan at being forced back into harness after a sleep of ages, like gnomes awakened from a nap and pulled, blinking, into the harsh sunlight of a strange new world.

Max Yount is the best harpsichord player in captivity for about a thousand miles around.  Assaying Gaspard Le Roux's charming "Suite in F major from Pieces de clavessin", he dug down and rousted a surprising array of color and nuance out of that delicate, plucked, and most charming of keyboard instruments.

Next was Claudio Monteverdi's vocal duet "Interrotte Speranze".   On paper, it masquerades as a polite salon divertissement.  Ah, not so.  Brought into vibrant view by a soprano Mimmi Fulmer and mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sanudo, we are confronted by a smoky, wailing elegy to romance adrift, loyalties tangled and betrayed, and lust simmering beneath the surface of civility.  Who knew the Baroques could get so down and dirty?  A lot went on under those wigs, apparently. 
The evening ended too soon as the entire ensemble launched into an ad hoc arrangement of the previously mentioned lament by Bach: "Ach das ich Wassers gnug hatte."  "O that I had enough water in my head, and my eyes were fountains, that I might weep for my sin day and night….".   Once again, it might have been a pro forma reading of a pretty bible verse (based on a passage from Jeremiah 9) but was transformed by the WBE into a desperate entreaty to a distant God for mercy, for attention, for the descent, somehow, of grace.  I'll not soon forget it, nor will any of the assembled that night. 

We don't hear those instruments much these days.  By the height of the Romance, they had been supplanted by newer versions of what they used to be, louder, more precise, more in tune, perhaps.  Something surely has been gained by the advance of the luthier's art, by Stradivari's genius.  But something has been lost, as well.  Something subtle, ineffable.  Something we may need right now.  Thanks to the WBE, it's back.  Thank goodness.