Among the many activities planned during the inaugural year of Juilliard’s newest graduate degree program, Juilliard Historical Performance, the debut of a faculty ensemble will mark the department’s first public performance with a concert featuring the music of J. S. Bach on October 27.
The ensemble, Juilliard Baroque, is comprised of nine sought-after period-instrument specialists, all of whom have recently joined the Historical Performance faculty. Collectively, the résumé of the group’s members includes the most prominent national and international early music ensembles—groups such as the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, Les Arts Florissants, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Musica Antiqua Köln, the Handel and Haydn Society, and Tafelmusik. But their debut performance will be the first time that these musicians have all played together as a group in a single concert, a fluke of fate that can partly be explained by their diverse geographic profiles: Robert Mealy and Cynthia Roberts, both violinists, and Sandra Miller, the group’s flutist, all live in the New York area. Robert Nairn, the double bassist, was born in Australia but now lives with his family in central Pennsylvania. Oboist Gonzalo Ruiz and cellist Phoebe Carrai, both inveterate traveling performers, are based in Boston. The Baroque bassoonist Dominic Teresi is a Californian who currently lives in Toronto. Kenneth Weiss, the harpsichordist, is a native New Yorker, but will now divide his time between his birth city and Paris, where he has lived since 1988. And Monica Huggett, the artistic director of Historical Performance and of Juilliard Baroque, maintains a home near Manchester, England, although her directorship of the Portland (Ore.) Baroque Orchestra, along with an active career as a concert soloist, has long meant extended trips to the United States and elsewhere. Indeed, all of the members of Juilliard Baroque lead the sort of peripatetic lives that are the modern hallmark of successful classical musicians everywhere.
The idea for the ensemble was proposed by President Joseph W. Polisi quite early in the development stages of the Historical Performance program, a nearly two-year process that involved a broad cross section of the School’s faculty and staff, and which culminated last month with the arrival of the first class of 13 Historical Performance majors. Launching and sponsoring a new faculty ensemble is a rare occurrence in Juilliard’s history. If the past is any indication, Juilliard Baroque will likely retain its new-kid-on-the-block status for quite some time. By way of comparison, the history of two other well-known Juilliard ensembles began decades ago. The Juilliard String Quartet was formed in 1946, and the New York Woodwind Quintet, also composed of Juilliard faculty members, has been active for more than 60 concert seasons.
In announcing the formation of Juilliard Baroque earlier this year, President Polisi remarked on the special opportunities that he hopes period-instrument performance will bring to Juilliard. “I know that this new program will become a vital part of the artistic tapestry of the School and will add considerably to the educational environment for all our students. … The creation of Juilliard Baroque will allow the values of this special program to be experienced by audience members in New York and, eventually, around the world.”
Indeed, while the study of early music on period instruments has long been a standard, even required, component of the curricula of many international music conservatories, their American counterparts, with important notable exceptions such as Indiana University at Bloomington and Oberlin College, have tended to offer such specialized study on a much more limited basis, a fact not lost on Huggett. “My colleagues and I are delighted that Juilliard has embraced early music—at last!” she wrote in a recent e-mail message. “As teachers,” she continued, “we are looking forward to training a new generation of Baroque musicians; and, as performing musicians ourselves, we look forward to giving a series of lively, passionate performances of 17th- and 18th-century music.”
In addition to the tour-de-force Concerto for Oboe in F, BWV 1053r, that will feature Ruiz as soloist, the debut concert of Juilliard Baroque will include Bach’s A Musical Offering, BWV 1079, a work written after the composer paid a visit in May of 1747 to the Potsdam court of King Friedrich II. An accomplished composer and flutist himself, King Friedrich challenged his visitor, by then renowned for his skills as an improviser, to create a three-voice fugue on a particularly thorny chromatic theme, a task that apparently proved to be quite simple for Bach. The king then requested that Bach use the same theme to improvise a six-voice fugue. Rather than trying to conquer this all-but-impossible feat on the spot, Bach demurred, assuring the king that he would send a completed score after he had time to work on it. The composer kept his promise, and two months later Bach’s A Musical Offering, based on the Thema Regium (“King’s Theme”) arrived in Potsdam for Friedrich’s perusal. The king may have gotten more than he bargained for, since Bach’s “offering” ended up being a lavish multipart work of exceptional stylistic and compositional variety: two ricercars (fugues in all but name, including one for six voices); five canons of increasing complexity; and a trio sonata scored for flute (which was the King’s instrument, after all), violin, and basso continuo.
Despite Bach’s strict attention to compositional procedures, he was apparently less concerned with indicating his preferred instrumentation for the piece. With a few exceptions (that flute-centric trio sonata, for example), A Musical Offering allows musicians to adapt it to suit a range of performing forces, a notion that makes it a particularly well-suited piece for the somewhat unorthodox distribution of instruments that comprises Juilliard Baroque. The edition being used for the performance is one that Huggett helped create for Ensemble Sonnerie, a London-based period-instrument group with which she has recorded the piece. “The good thing about this [version] is that it shows off our three wind players well. Even the writing for the bassoon is quite soloistic!” she wrote.
After making its debut in October, Juilliard Baroque will hit the road, although it won’t exactly be straying too far from home. Its next concert, featuring Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos, will take place on February 7 at Corpus Christi Church, located at 529 West 121st Street. The performance, part of the long-running Music Before 1800 concert series, gives New York audiences a second chance for an early glimpse of Juilliard’s newest ensemble.