Turning back the clock would be a futile endeavor for most of us, but for Frank Nowell, it is a productive and creative activity.
Nowell is artistic director of the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado (BCOC), a professional period-instrument ensemble based in Denver. Devoted to the performance of music from the 17th and 18th centuries using the techniques and instruments of the times, Nowell and the BCOC have put their stamp on music as familiar as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and composers as rare today as Henry Purcell and Dietrich Buxtehude.
Founded in 2005, the BCOC opens its eighth season this weekend (Sept. 22 in Boulder and Sept. 23 in Denver: www.bcocolorado.org/concerts/index.php) with another rarity: the oratorio La Susanna, based on the Biblical story of Susanna and the elders, by the 17th-century composer Alessandro Stradella.
“It’s a really extraordinary work,” Nowell says. “The story is earthy and colorful and moves along very quickly. Stradella’s music has some just amazing moments of expressiveness.
“It was such an important part of 17th- and 18th-century music that the role of the musician was to move the audience to experience emotional states. It could be joy or anger or, with Susanna, the sense of righteousness and honor and the anguish that she went through. We really try to draw the audience into that emotional experience.”
La Susanna is an oratorio, which means that it is musically similar to an opera of the time, but presented as a concert work without scenery or costumes. The emotional expression is found in the arias, while more declamatory passages, or recitative, are used to explain or advance the story line.
The piece was written in 1681 for the Duke of Modena.
“In Modena, the oratorio was particularly popular,” Nowell explains. “They were on Biblical subjects usually but also contained kind of an element of sensuality and romantic love.”
Apparently, sensuality was a subject Stradella knew well. His life was the 17th-century equivalent of tabloid fodder.
“Stradella was constantly getting into trouble for his amorous adventures with members of the nobility,” Nowell says. “There were apparently several attempts on his life, and finally he was assassinated, possibly in connection with one of these affairs. It’s really only been recently that we’ve come to know him as a composer.”
Nowell says he believes that he brought the historical performance movement to Colorado at just the right time.
He grew up in the state but went away to Princeton to study keyboard instruments and choral conducting before coming back to CU for his master’s degree.org for more information. 1128 Pine St., Boulder.
“I made a conscious decision to become an early music specialist as a keyboard player, because I just loved the music so much,” he says. “I had the dream of starting a Baroque orchestra here in Colorado. Just seeing the musical scene develop, I thought the time was right [in 2005] for a Baroque orchestra here. And I was pretty sure that there was an audience for it.
“The first season confirmed for me that there are a lot of people who want to hear this music live. We have a wonderful group of supporters who come to all of our concerts, and the growth of the orchestra over the seven years has really exceeded my expectations.”
Nowell and BCOC make exploration and discovery an important part of their programming.
“With Baroque music we usually think of the 18th century with Bach, Handel and Vivaldi,” he says. “But there’s this rich repertoire from the 17th century that gets neglected. I find that people really are curious about something that they haven’t heard before, and they usually really enjoy it.”
For many people, the sound of the period instruments is part of the discovery. In the BCOC, all instruments are either originals from the Baroque period or copies by modern builders. Violins and cellos use gut strings and a bow that has less tension than the modern bow.
The sound is leaner, softer and more transparent than modern instruments. For people devoted to period instruments, that makes works from the 17th and 18th centuries sound bright and renewed, like Renaissance paintings with layers of clouded varnish removed.
“There’s a unique sound that comes from those gut strings, it’s organic and warm and suited to the music that was composed at that time” Nowell explains. “I like to think that our instruments teach us, in a way. They provide us clues and cues to how to be expressive with the music.”
But Nowell is clear that it is not just about turning back the clock.
“The idea is not just to re-create something, but to communicate this music to a modern audience,” he says.
The Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado performs Sept. 22 at the First Congregational Church. Show starts at 7:30 p.m., tickets are $27. Visit www.bcocolorado.org for more information.