Think of baroque music and you may think of powdered wigs and starched collars, shushed salons in royal palaces or hallowed halls in cathedrals.
But harpsichordist-conductor Jeannette Sorrell says the music, written between roughly 1600 and 1750, was as much music of the masses as it was music for Mass. A composer might present a work for a royal patron then play in a coffeehouse the following day.
“There wasn’t such a big line between those things like there is now,” said Sorrell, who brings the baroque back to the Grand Teton Music Festival this week.
Fancy or folksy, the melodies, rhythms, styles and techniques that define the baroque were known from the throne to the tavern, and its structures and tropes were familiar throughout all of 17th-century Europe.
Sorrell makes her first visit to the Tetons to lead a “Baroque Night” program tonight. She also plays three shorter pieces Thursday. Members of the festival orchestra join her both nights, and baroque violin specialist Elizabeth Phelps solos Thursday.
Sorrell grew up playing piano and violin. When she was in high school, she said, some of the first recordings of baroque music performed on period instruments began to come out of Europe.
“I just loved the sound colors,” she said. “The gut strings and the wooden flutes and the colorful woodwinds — the transparency of it. At 17 I knew that I really wanted to work with period instruments. I wanted to do that a lot.”
A scholarship to Oberlin — where upon graduation she was offered a faculty post — studies with Leonard Bernstein, a conducting fellowship at the Aspen Music Festival and a year studying harpsichord with Gustav Leonhardt in Amsterdam brought prizes, awards, tours and, at the age of 26, her founding the baroque ensemble Apollo’s Fire.
“I don’t know why I was in such a hurry,” she said.
Well-studied in baroque performance techniques — there’s ample literature from the time about articulation and tone production and the like — Sorrell’s emphasis with Apollo’s Fire is more emotional than academic.
“The purpose [of music is] to move the emotional moods of the listener,” she said. “Baroque music is about emotions and emotional communication.”
There was dance and storytelling and even a bit of Renaissance ribaldry to be mined — its buttoned-down reputation, obscure jargon and jaundiced complexion be damned.
“That’s what I try to bring to the audience,” she said.
Her approach was quickly, though not immediately, embraced. Apollo’s Fire’s first concert at London’s Wigmore Hall was sold out, and four critics came.
“Two gave rave reviews, but the other two were quite mixed,” she said. “They were shocked at how animated we were on stage. Because of this whole thing about emotional communication, which is the core of my philosophy for baroque music, the players are very expressive. The Brits were quite surprised by that.”
Subsequent visits to Europe have been enthusiastically received.
That change of attitude wasn’t restricted to London. This summer Apollo’s Fire made sold-out appearances at the Tanglewood and Ravinia festivals.
Tonight’s program is titled “A Night at Bach’s Coffeehouse.” It consists of four pieces Bach might have performed at the Cafe Zimmermann in Leipzig, where he met weekly with students and acolytes, performing his music, his talented sons’ music, his followers’ music and the music of other stars of the age.
“He was buddies with Telemann,” Sorrell said. “In fact he was godfather to one of Bach’s sons.”
And while he probably never met Vivaldi, she said, he was a huge admirer, owned many of his scores, and transcribed and arranged many of his pieces.
Telemann’s “Suite-Burlesque de Don Quixote,” based on Cervantes’ literary masterpiece, provides a sample of the storytelling character of baroque music, while Sorrell’s arrangement of Vivaldi’s “La Folia” — “Madness” — is a raucous dance. Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe and his Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 represent the height of the composer’s orchestral brilliance.
Thursday’s chamber program digs deeper into the era, with a sonata for violin and harpsichord by Heinrich Biber (Austria, 1644-1704), a harpsichord sonata by Johann Jakob Froberger (Germany, 1616-1667) and a violin sonata by Dario Castello (Italy, 1590-1658).
Thursday’s eclectic program also includes a song by Stephen Sondheim, a duo for violin and cello by Kodaly, Latvian composer Peteris Vasks’ “Summer” and J.S. Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1, performed by guest soloist James Ehnes (see related story, page 6).
For details and tickets, visit GTMF.org or call 733-1128.