‘Surround sound’ from the 17th century

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Publick Musick members Mary Riccardi, Boel Gidholm, Naomi Gregory, Deborah Fox and Chris Haritatos (Photos provided by Publick Musick)

If you thought stereophonic sound began in the 1950s, think again. A concert Thursday evening at the Memorial Art Gallery proves that the concept of musicians tossing sounds back and forth has been around for centuries.

Echoes of the Renaissance,” the latest concert by the early music ensemble Publick Musick, will take place Feb. 15 in the MAG’s Fountain Court. The lineup of musicians includes violinists Boel Gidholm and Mary Riccardi, violist James Marshall, cellist Christopher Haritatos, lutenist Deborah Fox, and organist Naomi Gregory.

The concert’s title gives a clue to its content, as echoes and antiphonal effects are an essential part of the music.

Despite the title, “it’s not all Renaissance music,” says Gidholm. “You’ll also hear the birth of the Baroque.”  

The hour-long program, which is free with gallery admission, packs in more a dozen pieces by early Baroque masters like Dario Castello and Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli. In transitioning from Renaissance to Baroque styles, Italian composers of the late 1500s and early 1600s changed the history of music.  

Much of it was written for St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, which boasted four performing areas around the church. Composers who wrote for St. Mark’s, like many of those on this program, took full advantage of the possibilities to create what we might call the original “surround sound.”

It’s not as spacious as St. Mark’s, but the Fountain Court should be an excellent substitute venue. Surrounded by examples of Medieval and Renaissance art, the different groups of instruments can be spaced far enough apart to convey the antiphonal effects of the music.

“This concert is also a wonderful chance to get better acquainted with the MAG’s fantastic organ,” Gidholm adds.

This beautiful and authentic instrument will be a star of the concert. Originally built around 1770 in central Italy, the well-preserved instrument is a “living recording” of sounds made hundreds of years ago. It was installed in the MAG’s Fountain Court in the fall of 2005. 

Italian Baroque organ in the MAG Fountain Court

Gidholm, a violinist, and Haritatos, a Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra cellist, have been artistic directors of Publick Musick since 2011. The group, founded in 1995, was for many years focused on vocal and choral music. (The group’s quaint name derives from the Private Musick, a musical ensemble employed by King James II of England in the late 17th century.)

As string players, Gidholm and Haritatos have performed widely in the United States and Europe. They have refocused Publick Musick’s presentations on instrumental music, and Publick Musick has given annual performances in the MAG’s Fountain Court as part of its seasons since 2013. It has proved to be an ideal setting for their music—including this concert.

“One of the challenges of these concerts is doing the research,” Haritatos says.

Appreciation of historical musical practice includes not only choosing a program from a vast repertory of often-obscure music, but also researching methods of performance in order to recreate the correct styles of the early 17th century.  

The sound of the MAG Italian Baroque organ, for example, recreates the sonority and balances of the music of its time. Similarly, string instruments use strings made not of metal, but of gut (or a modern equivalent—no cats were harmed for this concert), and wind instruments have fewer keys and valves than modern instruments.

Historically informed performance (or HIP, as it is often called) has become more and more accepted by musicians in the last three or four decades, and Rochester now boasts a lively early-music scene.

Along with Publick Musick is an established concert series by Pegasus Early Music (whose artistic director, Deborah Fox, is part of the Feb. 15 concert). Gidholm and Haritatos say that more and more younger musicians are “very serious” about studying HIP. Publick Musick concerts have sometimes featured a string orchestra of Eastman students, and a Pegasus presentation, “Pegasus Rising,” showcases talented young early-music performers.

In addition to concert performances, Publick Musick has given educational presentations at SUNY Brockport, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Genesee Community College-Dansville, as well as Rochester’s School of the Arts, Nazareth Elementary School, and the Eastman Community Music School.

Its October 2023 concert, “A Companionable Afternoon,” was performed not only at Rochester’s St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene Episcopal Church, but also headed south to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Dansville.

The group performs there each year and, according to Gidholm, “the response for our Dansville concerts has been really great.”

Publick Musick returns to Dansville on April 13. Plans for Publick Musick in what its directors call the “idea stage” include performing in cafés, coffeehouses, and nursing homes.

“We’re finding our niche,” Gidholm says.

David Raymond is a freelance writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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