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Music Notes: period-instrument group goes Bach


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Elaine Scott Banks is breathing easier this year. After an incredibly successful and risky 1987-88 season for the City Musick, which included Chicago's first period-instrument opera to be presented in an aquarium, things are settling down for the group's upcoming fourth season, which opens Friday.

"How we got through last year's hectic pace, I'll never know," says Banks, the group's founder, artistic director, and conductor. "We luckily seem to be getting to the point where the novelty of our being a period-instrument group is wearing down. Audiences are too sophisticated to simply buy what we're all about just based on authenticity--you have to have something solid and exciting to say musically as well." Fortunately, Banks seems never to be short on substance and excitement--as her increasing numbers of devoted listeners are aware.

This weekend's two concerts feature an all-Bach program: the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, the Trauer Ode, BWV 198, and the Missa Brevis in F, BWV 233. Soloists include Mary Springfels on viola da gamba, soprano Julianne Baird, countertenor Christopher Trueblood, tenor Mark Bleeke, and baritone Andrew Schultze.

"Probably the only familiar piece is the Sixth Brandenburg," says Banks, "but even that is not as well known as the others because of the solo gamba." Since they were already going to have two gambas on hand for the Sixth Brandenburg, they thought it would be appropriate to do another piece with two gambas. "The Trauer Ode is a big cantata in two parts and is considered to be among Bach's finest choral/orchestral works. It's a very dark and wonderful score that is compared a lot to the Saint Matthew Passion but is rarely heard live. It was also the basis for the now-lost Saint Mark Passion, so it gives us a glimpse of that as well."

The Trauer Ode was written, Banks adds, "after the death of the Queen of Poland, who had gone off to live by herself when her husband became King of Poland and converted to Catholicism, renouncing Protestantism. She was a heavy-duty Protestant, so that didnt go over too well with her. She became a cult figure and 'defender of the faith' in Germany, and when she died it was a very big deal--six months of mourning.

"The F-Major Mass is one of the supposed 'Lutheran masses'"--although no one is really sure exactly who used it and in what context, since Lutherans don't perform masses. Banks describes it as "a parody mass, and very festive. I'll be playing cello in the Brandenburg and the Trauer Ode, but I'll conduct the mass from the podium, so it will be a fun mixture of playing and conducting for me.

"I'm always amazed," Banks muses, "when you look at what an incredible amount of music Bach actually wrote, for every available genre, how little of it we actually hear and know. It's great to think that the process of rediscovering Bach, which Mendelssohn began, has continued on and taken a huge leap in our own time with the period-instrument movement. It's also great fun to do pieces that you just don't get to hear. Sure, it's a pain when there are no performing editions of a work, and it's complicated to do pieces that aren't down the middle of the repertoire, but believe me, it's worth it."

This year, the City Musick will give two performances of each concert, now at the rate of one each month, and in two new locations. "Doing each program twice will give our audience greater flexibility," says Banks. "A large proportion of our audience was coming from the North Shore. It unfortunately wasn't the most convenient thing for people to drive downtown on a Sunday evening, drive back up north, only to turn around and drive back downtown again Monday morning." The City Musick is now offering their Sunday night series at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston, "thanks largely to the efforts of a lot of the Northwestern music faculty, who happen to be City Musick attenders and who thought it would be valuable to have the group 'in residence,' as it were," says Banks. "Pick is a wonderfully intimate concert hall with great acoustics, so we're naturally very excited.

"Our downtown series, which will now be on Friday evening, will take place in James Simpson Hall, in the west wing of the Field Museum. Like Pick, it holds about 1,000 people and is a classically proportioned rectangular room with no balcony as such. It's a hall most people are unaware of, but obviously in our search for venues that will stretch into the future some distance we were interested in finding familiar places with easy access which could offer our audience the amenities that an audience deserves--a nice lobby, comfortable restrooms, comfortable theater seating instead of hard pews, etc." The Field Museum intends to develop this space for performances, Banks says, although up until now it has been used primarily for museum lectures and films, and the occasional concert--Ravi Shankar, for instance.

The City Musick has devised some very flexible subscription plans--subscribers can choose three, four, five, or all of its eight concerts, and they need not be limited to one or the other performance space. "That way," Banks says, "people can try both halls, and try what it feels and sounds like in both spaces."

The season opens Friday, September 16, at 8:30 PM at James Simpson Hall in the Field Museum, Roosevelt Road and Lake Shore Drive. The same concert will be repeated Sunday, September 18, at 7:30 PM at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University, 1977 Sheridan Road in Evanston. Tickets are priced at $12-$20; call 642-1766 for information and reservations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Gordon Meyer.

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