Amherst Baroque Soloists

I don’t want you to think that all we do here at Amherst is
take classes in the daytime and complain about them at night.
Every night there’s some kind of performance, with opportunities
for playing or singing or dancing before and after.

Yesterday it was a concert by the faculty of the Baroque
Academy. It was billed as Welcome to the Ball: An Evening
of Dance Music from Versailles

I’m sure everything on the program had come kind of
relationship to dance music, but for some things the relationship
seemed pretty misty to me. I suspect that when Charpentier called
something a sonata he meant that the performers should take the
dances in the movement titles as performance instructions, but not
that a dancer should necessarily be able to dance the dance to the
movement. And certainly a vocal cantata about the parting of the
Red Sea isn’t intended to be danced to.

The playing was uniformly elegant and professional. There were
a few cases where I thought the mood could have been captured
better. For instance, three viol players plus continuo seemed
quite solemn when playing a movement called “Caprice” from a
Marais Suite. The person sitting next to me pointed out that
caprice doesn’t necessarily mean capricious or playful — it means
“what you feel like” and maybe the viol players were feeling

Notes on the Continuo

Ever since I heard a baroque wind band perform with a continuo
consisting of both Bernard Fourtet on serpent and
Marilyn Boenau on baroque bassoon, I’ve felt that Baroque chamber
music should be performed with a louder continuo than the usual
harpsichord/cello or viol configuration. The Boston Early Music Festival opera
orchestra always uses multiple configurations of bowed and plucked
strings, but as a wind player I never find that as interesting as
if they used serpents and bassoons too.

The performers last night were doing the right kind of
experiments with that, and in the final number with an ensemble
consisting of two violins, two oboes, two recorders, two baroque
flutes, cello, viol, baroque bassoon, and two harpsichords, they
achieved a wonderful variety of very supportive continuo

I suspect with more rehearsal time, they could have carried
that over to all the other pieces, too. But for the Cantata about
the parting of the Red Sea, they decided to use the cello/bassoon
configuration throughout, and I felt it was an obtrusively
unblended sound that didn’t work well with Julianne Baird’s limpid
soprano vocal lines.

Of the instrumental pieces, the most remarked on one was the
piece for two harpsichords by a later, more obscure Couperin
(Armand Louis (1727-1789). A long, drawn-out cadence in the
middle seemed to put Peter Sykes to sleep until Arthur Haas leaned
over to poke him so that he could wake up and play the bravura
fireworks of the ending. I found myself wondering how fast the
allegro of that Symphonie must be if that was the

Too good to be true

They reorganized all the loud wind classes on Monday night, and
threw me (and a number of other people) out of them.

I shouldn’t have been surprised — I know someone who flew from
Massachusetts to San Francisco to take a cornetto class and they
cancelled it without telling her because not enough people signed

This seems to have been the reverse — they had an unusual
number of brass players sign up, so they hired an extra coach, but
his mother-in-law was dying in Toronto, so he didn’t come. So
instead of making the other brass coaches coach more students, or
finding someone to fill in at the last moment, they just threw
some people out of the classes.

In my case they put me in two recorder classes. One of them
was billed as a Camarata class, so I’m going and playing serpent
and cornetto there, because I assume the people who signed up for
that knew they’d be playing with mixed instruments. It’s not the
best class for me, both because I would learn more about brass
playing from a class with other brass players, coached by a brass
player, and also because the coach is my recorder teacher, and it’s
silly to come to a place full of world-class musicians and work
with someone who lives a mile away from you and gives you a
recorder lesson every week.

The other was billed as a recorder class, and when they posted
the new class assignments, the wrote “Laura Conrad (rec)” with the
rec in red lettering. So I decided I could get more out of taking
third period off and catching up on this blog, and napping and
practicing. I made a point of telling the teacher (also from the
Boston area) that it was nothing personal and I was sure it was a
fine recorder class, except that I didn’t come here for recorder
classes. He was quite sympathetic, and said the students in the
class had been quite excited about having a serpent, and we agreed
I could come try it if I wanted it to, but I’ve decided not

I’ve usually just put up with decisions I didn’t like, and
complained about them to the other students, but this time I
decided to be a squeaky wheel and see if I got any grease.

The person who used to be in charge of class assignments was
sitting at the table when I was explaining my problem to the
current class assignment person, and she told me she thought I’d
given a very good, clear explanation of the problem, but that it
might make sense to also give that kind of explanation directly to the
brass faculty, and eliminate the middleperson. So at afternoon
coffee break I found the cornetto teacher and explained the
problem. He was sympathetic, but not really helpful, but he did
agree that he should be putting some ensemble playing into the
morning cornetto class. I asked him if he thought it made sense to
talk to Wim Becu, and he didn’t say no, but he didn’t say anything
that convinces me the answer is, “Yes”, either. But maybe some
time Wim won’t be surrounded by 10 trombone players and I can ask
him if he knows of a workshop where someone like me could get
brass ensemble experience.

If this had happened on Monday, I would have been frustrated
and disappointed, but not the kind of upset I was with it
happening after the Monday classes. A number of people tried
really hard to make me feel better. The most successful one was a
student who had been in both Monday afternoon classes. He said he
thought both classes with me on Monday afternoon had been really
good, and the class with Wim is still pretty good, but the class
with Steve is much worse without me, and with the new people they
moved into it.

Good things are still happening. The Tuesday night lecture was
a humorous survey of the history of French music, with
illustrations. The viol coach who’s coaching the loud winds in
the “Mass” (long story that I don’t know all of yet, but I may
tell you later) was at a loss for what to do for a loud band
piece, so I suggested the Estocart Psalm CXXXVII that’s on
and he printed it out and printed several other things, so we’ll
probably play some of that.

Classes have met

And they all seem to be pretty good.

Cornetto technique with Stephen Escher

We did a lot of talking and not much playing yesterday, but
the talking was to the point. We went around the room and talked
about how and why we got into cornetto playing, and each played
single notes and talked about them and what to do to improve
them. In my case hardware is part of the answer. Steve loaned me
his 465 cornetto, which is just enough smaller than a 415
instrument that I can play it, although not easily. And he has a
jar full of mouthpieces that we’re going to see if we can find
something that works better on the cornettino.

He pointed out that once we get a sound we like and are really
listening to, there isn’t that much difference between us and
Bruce Dickey — he just gets to that sound immediately and keeps
it up to the end of the note and we don’t.


That’s what they call the mixed choral and instrumental
performance at the end of the week that everybody can do. This
year it’s the polyphonic church music of the French Calvinists, who
weren’t allowed to play polyphony in Church, so they did it at

It’s all good music for serpent. There’s a bunch of settings
of Psalm CXXXVII, and a large Te
by Claude LeJeune.

Wim Becu

I think the class is called “Josquin and Goudimel” or something
like that, but people signed up for it because they want to work
with Wim. There are 8 of us, but mostly trombone and bass curtal
players, so they’re in need of instruments that can play top
lines. I was surprised that anyone would rather listen to me on
cornetto than on serpent, but I did in fact end up playing
cornetto all class. We’re doing two choir music, and I got the
lower of the two top lines (the other cornetto player in the class
is much better than I am).

The music is wonderful, and two choirs full of people who can
sightread it isn’t something I get anywhere else, and Wim is a
really good coach, who can make a piece sound like you aren’t
sightreading in a very short time.

Steve Escher again

I forget what this one is called, but there are 5 loud wind
players playing what Steve brings. In this case, I’m playing low
to middle lines. I started out playing the second from the bottom
line (there’s a good bass curtal player on the bottom), but I
turned out to have more serpent high notes left than the trombone
player had trombone high notes, so I switched to middle lines.

People were pretty zonked by then, so some of theh sightreading
wasn’t as good as the same people had been doing only an hour
before, but I’m sure it will but a good class.

I have arrived

[dorm room ]

Budget dorm room at Amherst

At the Amherst Early Music Festival at Connecticut College in
New London, Connecticut.

The dorm room is a bit spartan — no mirror on the wall, no
hangars in the closet, no wastebasket. There are two power
outlets and an ethernet connection, but the ethernet connection is
10 feet from the nearest power outlet. So at the moment, I’m
trusting the wireless ethernet, since I know the battery on this
machine gets hungry fast.

But for compensation, the acoustics for playing Renaissance
instruments are wonderful.

I met the cornetto teacher (Stephen Escher) seems to be
pleasant, and not freaked out by having a serpent player.

An improvement on previous years is that they posted the class
schedules before the orientation session. The have indeed given
me 4 brass classes.

So it looks good so far. I’ll tell you more when I’ve met the

[serpents unpacked]

Serpents unpacked

Going to Amherst

Or, less colloquially, The Amherst Early Music
, which this year takes place at Connecticut College
in New London, Connecticut.

The reason to go is because I hope it will be an opportunity to
play brass several hours a day, and get my lip closer to the
kind of shape the people who played in band in high school for
several hours a day have.

Amherst is lots of things to lots of people, and in the past
I’ve used it to do lots of singing and recorder playing. So I’m a
little nervous that they won’t read (or won’t believe) what I
wrote on the form:

Q: What are your primary interests and goals for this

A: play brass instruments all day every day.

I did do as instructed and put second and third choices for all
the class periods, and of course there aren’t always 3 classes
suitable for brass instruments, so they might screw up and give me
a recorder class.

If it’s a good recorder class, I’ll put up with it,
but it might be another ten years before I try to see if I can get
what I need for being an early brass player out of them.

If it’s one of those babysitting classes for 20 people of
varying abilities, I’ll just tell them I need the time to practice
or take a nap.

Not only might they be confused about what I want because it’s
different from what I wanted 10 and 15 and 20 years ago, but they
might make a judgement that my lip isn’t strong enough to play for
4 hours a day. This would certainly be true if I were playing
cornetto, but I routinely play 3 hour rehearsals on serpent, so
I’m sure 4 classes wouldn’t be a problem. And any reasonable
person would rather have my serpent playing in an ensemble than my
cornetto playing. At least after the first 10 minutes.

In any case, there’s lots of singing and dancing and eating
dormitory style with good people, and good concerts, so it will be
fun even if I still haven’t figured out how to convince them that
they want to develop early brass players who weren’t modern brass
players in high school.

I’ve set up a category for blogging about this experience.
You have even less time to blog at a workshop than you do at a
festival, so I don’t know how much blogging I’ll do while I’m
actually there. But I promise to tell you how it worked out afterward.

Playing Lassus

My recorder teacher John
, had his student recital yesterday morning. The room
was chosen for the acoustics rather than the lighting, so the
person I handed my pocket camera to got a lot of fuzzy or oddly
colored ones. But this one isn’t too bad.

[Playing Lassus]

Playing Lassus

I played two Renaissance duets with John, and a Brazilian Choros
with my sister on organ.

[performing] Cambridge Center Renaissance Ensemble Concert, May 25

What was probably last concert of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education
Renaissance Ensemble took place before a standing room only crowd.
(There were only a few more people than usual, but there were fewer
chairs than usual.)

Last Sunday’s dress rehearsal must have been the kind that leads to
a good performance — almost everything was better in performance than
in rehearsal. I’m told my divisions on Suzanne un jour was an
exception, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t true. There might have been
a few things that worked better on Sunday, but I’m sure the
performance as a whole was more comfortable after a few more times
getting through it without falling apart.

In any case, nothing was a total disaster; a lot of the rough edges
that had been glaring on Sunday were fixed by Wednesday, and we
recovered from the new rough edges that had never happened before with
a fair amount of aplomb.

The cornetto playing is what I can do without warmup these days. I
was expecting the pieces to be easy, because neither of them has a Bb,
both have an easy range, and they were next to each other. However, in the Michael Altenburg the
Cantus Firmus has two pages of rest in a 3-page score, and the viols
needed to tune between the pieces. I should of course just insist
on brass players equal warmup time with the viol
tuning time, but I haven’t managed that yet. Another problem was that
the director asked for crisper articulation on the repeated notes in
the Altenburg, and I haven’t figured out how to do that well yet. The
repeated notes in “Come Live with Me” seem quite separate and much
prettier to me than the Altenburg ones, so maybe I should just ignore
direction like that.

My singing was almost entirely in the tenor range, since I have the
lowest voice of the 5 female singers. I was annoyed that she gave the
“Come live with me” solo to the baritone, because it was more
comfortable for him than for me as a mezzo, but it would have been
even more comfortable than that for me as a tenor. Anyway, I managed
to not push the low F’s and to sound pretty good on everything above
that. I blew the entrance on the C above middle C in Sumer is icumen
in (the last piece), though. I think if people want an exposed
entrance on c, they should give you a note above G some time before

I got lots of compliments on the “Suzanne un jour” divisions. I
guess they were good. There are easier pieces to do divisions on.
And doing them with a lute player who takes 6 weeks to simplify his
part to what he can play in an 8-week term doesn’t give you much
rehearsal time.

The serpent playing was quite good. And the microphone
configuration I found with the borrowed mic last time produces better
balance with my mic, too.

Update: The pictures are in the

CCAE Renaissance Ensemble concert on May 25, 2005

The calendar listing is on the
BRS calendar.

The report on the last concert is on
my blog.
It now points to the audio recording by Dennis Ehn.

This program is a bit more ambitious than the last one, and should
be fun if we avoid disasters. There’s lots of good May music.
There’s a Loyset Compère hymn to the Virgin Mary that takes advantage
of the wonderful acoustic of the CCAE exercise studio. The serpent is
getting good at doing bass on dance music. There are two settings of
“Petite Camusette”, and 3 of “Suzanne un Jour”. And the program ends
with everyone bursting into song on “Sumer is icumen in”.

On a serious note, the Cambridge
is probably going to cancel both this class and the Baroque
Ensemble class. If you’ve been to the concerts, or enjoyed listening
to the recordings of them, you might want to write Jim Smith, the
director, and tell him you think that decision should be reconsidered.

Report on the Walk for Hunger Performance

It was challenging. The weather prediction was that the rain would
end overnight and things would clear up by the time we had to start.
This looked like it was happening when I walked the dog at 6:30.

But at 10:30 when we were scheduled to start, it was raining quite
hard. I played “Singing in the Rain” and “It ain’t gonna rain no more
no more” in between the Playford and Van Eyck I had planned for my
solo set. People walking by cheered and clapped. It may have been
the sympathy vote — you always get more voters to talk
to at an election when you’re holding a sign and it’s pouring rain.

Eventually the other people arrived. Ishmael couldn’t play fiddle,
so he got out the pipe and tabor. I tried providing a bass line with
the plastic bass recorder, but it wasn’t really in tune with the tabor

Bonnie and I set up for our Morley set. By now the rain had
lightened up, and she got out her wood recorders. I played the
Soprano and Alto parts on plastic, but decided it wasn’t worth dealing
with the Yamaha stretch and played the tenor parts on my wooden

Quilisma showed up on time and set up without needing assistance.
They were playing “Rufty Tufty” when Peter Barnes, of the “Barnes Book
of English Country Dance” walked by. We were struck by how well they
carried, even playing bass.

Unfortunately, this didn’t mean that the plastic bass carried well
enough to be heard by the singers, and in the Cantabile first set,
there were some train wrecks that I wasn’t expecting. There were
indeed a few pieces that were underrehearsed, but some of the train
wrecks were on pieces we’ve been playing for years, and have performed
successfully on numerous occasions.

So we spend the half hour of the Quilisma second set standing in a
tight circle (away from the Quilisma consort) and going over (vocally) the
things that had had problems. This was actually some of the best
singing we did all day.

For the second set, there wasn’t really very much rain, and Ishmael
got out his fiddle, but Bonnie still wasn’t comfortable getting out
the viol. I moved to serpent on a couple of things, but wasn’t able
to do as much of that as I would have liked to, because nobody but me
had rehearsed the alto part. But there were no major disasters, and
we felt good about the performance. John Maloney came by as we
rounded off the day with some of the rounds that had fallen off the
program due to time constraints, and complimented us on our clear

We went to our usual post-walk Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse rendezvous,
and after a good meal we left and the sun was shining brightly.
Ishmael said, “What a beautiful day! Let’s go play music in the
park.” But it was a joke. I don’t think any of us felt like playing
another note of that music for at least 24 hours.

There are pictures at the gallery.
Ishmael Stefanov-Wagner took the
Quilisma Consort one, and John Maloney took the one of the Cantabile
Consort. More may be coming later.