A Big Old Jam Thing, Baroque Style

La Follia reheats the best bits of music past into a jazzy feast

A Big Old Jam Thing, Baroque Style
Illustration By Robert Faires

Like most of us on the day after Thanksgiving the members of La Follia will be serving leftovers. In their case, however, the scraps that they will have recooked and recombined are musical: choice movements, songs, and arias from otherwise unmemorable suites and cantatas of the baroque era. It's the sort of clever, insightful programming that fans of the 24-year-old ensemble expect, conceived over barbecue at Rudy's.

Flutist Marcus McGuff sees it as a chance to do some cherry picking. "We'd look through music, and we'd say, 'This is really good, but I wonder if it is worth sitting through the whole thing for one good movement. Why don't we combine them?'" He and harpsichordist Keith Womer grafted together a sonata from juicy movements by Frederick the Great, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and Ludwig Hasse.

If you think this violates the purity of the art, check out the trio sonata that Handel made of fragments from his own operas and ballets. "Now it is considered a horrible thing to do artistically," viola da gambist James A. Brown says, "but Handel did that all the time. It was already leftovers."

Tenor Chris LeCluyse is reheating two arias by 18th-century composer Giovanni Pergolesi, one that Stravinsky rehashed into his ballet Pulcinella. LeCluyse would have sung a third, but "it was voted off the island," he says.

Making a meal of leftovers means going into territory without recipes to guide you, playing it by ear. It is also the secret to playing early music. Brown refers to the fundamentalists who tried to revive early music taking the written music literally as "paper-trained musicians." "We appreciate the freedom to be spontaneous," he says. The ensemble's violinist Laurie Young Stevens, he adds, "is a master of that -- she is so conversant in the language that she can extemporize at will. I look at her as a model for that and to what Keith's quick wit in the continuo role allows us to do."

"The improvisation we do is so much like jazz, it's just that the idiom is from so long ago," mezzo soprano Stephanie Prewitt observes. "It is a strange thing we are in the Arts section and not the Music section."

What's for dessert? A confection they call the "Grand Chaconne." The chaconne is a New World dance based on a repeating bass line. It was the original Latin dance craze in Europe, and it stayed alive in the New World, finding its way into blues and into the jammin' rock music of the 1960s. You hear it in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and in "House of the Rising Sun," Bach's Goldberg Variations and Cream's "Tales of Brave Ulysses."

So Womer, Brown, and lutenist Scott Horton will set up the groove over which will appear bits of Couperin, and Monteverdi's famous "Zefiro Torna," followed by his student Heinrich Schütz's sober take-off on Monteverdi's madrigal. And be ready for some surprises.

Prewitt, who will also sing two Vivaldi arias, calls this a "big old jam thing. We have done group improvisations, but this is the most massive thing we have done." end story

La Follia will perform Suites and Leftovers Friday, Nov. 28, 8pm, at First Presbyterian Church, 8001 Mesa; and Saturday, Nov. 29, 8pm, at First English Lutheran Church, 3001 Whitis. For information, call 474-TIXS or 796-4024 or visit www.lafollia.org.

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Suites and Leftovers, La Follia, Marcus McGuff, Keith Womer, James A. Brown, Chris LeCluyse, Christopher LeCluyse, Stephanie Prewitt, Scott Horton, Laurie Stevens, Laurie Young Stevens, Frederick the Great, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and Ludwig Hasse, Giovanni Pergolesi, chaconne

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