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'17th Century Masterworks From Eastern Europe'

Move over, Queen! La Follia digs up some Bohemian rhapsodies you haven't heard before.

By Natalie Zeldin, Fri., April 4, 2014

'17th Century Masterworks From Eastern Europe'
Courtesy of La Follia

SXSW infuses Austin with a fervor to seek out new sounds from around the world. La Follia is riding the wave of this adventurous spirit by exploring some sounds that are new and yet also old. This weekend, the Baroque music specialists perform works from the Kromeriz Collection, a body of musical manuscripts that Karl II von Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn compiled from 1664 to 1695. Until recently, this Czech collection's 1,000 works have been, for the most part, collecting dust. Half of the pieces on this program have never been recorded, and several have never even been published, so these Bohemian rhapsodies will be hitting eardrums again for the first time in more than 300 years!

Mimi Mitchell, a scholar and guest violinist for the concert, is helping La Follia resurrect this music. As a musicologist, her goal is to get as true a sense of what this music would have sounded like in the period it was composed as possible. But the process of bringing 17th century music to life is riddled with complex questions, and answering them takes both research and intuition.

For instance, deciding how to interpret the notation and text provides a major challenge in decoding this music. Old paper and sketchy handwriting can sometimes make it difficult for modern performers to read the original manuscript, necessitating a transcription of the score. But at times while transcribing, some notes seem just plain wrong based on current understandings of harmony in that period. But are they – how do we know what the composer intended? Does the transcriber leave the "wrong" notes or make "corrections" as she sees fit? Then there's the text. Three of the pieces in La Follia's program are in Latin, and even though they utilize pretty familiar liturgical texts, there are the odd "wonky" words that don't quite fit. Are these transcription errors or regionalized versions of Latin? Should they be "corrected"? Mitchell and the musicians of La Follia will be making these judgment calls in their efforts to honor the intent of the music.

While mystery shrouds certain aspects of this work, its very obscurity is what allows for a uniquely authentic performance experience. Historically, these works would have been performed by musicians at court, who were scrambling to put them together in time for a performance. Musicians today often research and carefully study older music before performing it, even referencing recordings by other artists. But with music like this, there are no YouTube performances to pull up for study. Instead, the musicians have to learn the music in the traditional way: sifting through it together and making sense of passages for the first time – just like those court musicians whipping it together for Karl II.

La Follia Artistic Director Keith Womer says he's on a mission to champion music of the 17th century, an all-too-neglected period to his mind. If that's true for music from Italy, it's all the truer for music from central Europe, which has practically vanished from the canon. What's interesting is that a distinct harmonic exoticism and richness characterizes this music, particularly in the compositions by Alessandro Poglietti. Although many of the composers in Karl II's court were Italian, Eastern harmonies clearly influenced much of their work. So, if you're still on the SXSW hunt for new and surprising sounds, this program won't disappoint. When was the last time you heard the works of Pavel Josef Vejvanovsky, Johann Kaspar Kerll, Antonio Bertali, and Philipp Jakob Rittler in the same afternoon?


La Follia will present 17th Century Masterworks From Eastern Europe April 5 & 6, Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 3pm, at First Presbyterian Church, 8001 Mesa. For more information, call 512/879-6404 or visit www.lafollia.org.

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