by Mark Gresham | 20 Dec 2014This Sunday evening, New Trinity Baroque, will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its “Candlelight Christmas” concerts at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. The annual event typically draws a near-capacity audience to the church’s 400-seat sanctuary, but it is not your typical holiday concert. New Trinity Baroque is one of a small cadre of music ensembles in Atlanta which present “historically informed” performances of Baroque and other pre-classical Western music on the 17th and early 18th-century “period” instruments for which it was written, whether authentic antiques or carefully-crafted reproductions.
Sunday’s program will feature Christmas-themed concertos, suites and pastorales from the Baroque era performed in a “by candlelight” atmosphere. The mix includes works from more familiar composers like Bach, Vivaldi and Telemann to the relatively obscure Johann Christoph Pez, whose 350th birth anniversary is this year. The group’s artistic director, Predrag Gosta, has hand-picked an ensemble of nine musicians for the occasion – some well-established Atlanta locals, some flown in from as far as Germany.
The notion of authenticity, recreating the music as closely as possible the way the composers themselves might have heard it, is a major goal of “historically informed performance practice.” However, Gosta notes that the primary motivation for performing on Baroque-period instruments is a more fundamentally human, emotional one.“We play on period instruments because, first, we like it,” says Gosta “The sound of period instruments is something that is very beautiful to me.” Only after that affinity, he suggests, can musicians try to answer the question about how playing them allows the music to be heard as the composer intended. One could say that by doing so, achieving that ideal is already half done.
“But period instruments are absolutely useless unless you know how to use them,” cautions Gosta, “and even more important, unless you bring the energy into them. I’ve had amazing successful performances with all modern instruments playing Baroque music which sounded better than some ensembles playing on period instruments because use of period instruments cannot justify why you perform Baroque music.”
But like many other ensembles whose lifeboats are still rocking in the wake of the post-2008 Great Recession, New Trinity Baroque faces harsh financial realities today, and has been forced to pare its normal complement of five concerts per season down to a total of two for this season. Sunday’s concert is the first of those. Another will take place at the end of March.
Gosta readily admits that Atlanta’s “early music” community is surprisingly small, much smaller than in European cities and American cities which he suggests have longer, deeper cultural roots that support early music. It is a phenomenon he has observed ever since his arrival in Atlanta in 1998, noting that “there are few early music ensembles here which basically rotate the same audience.”A portion of New Trinity Baroque’s general audience, he says, is due to concert location rather than musical style, drawn from the area surrounding St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, which has been their home venue for the last 10 years. But then there’s the hard-core audience, those who come not only from Atlanta, but from as far away as Alabama and North Carolina.
“These are those aficionados of early music who want to hear us,” says Gosta, “and are those that you will see regularly at concerts other ensembles or choirs that also specialize in earlier repertoire, because they like that kind of music.”
But Gosta recognizes that for the ensemble to continue to succeed and rebuild its next season, it is going to have to draw upon broader support while not sacrificing its mission of musical authenticity — without trading Corelli concerti for dancing Christmas trees. Thankfully, Gosta is not concerned with having to resort to the latter, as “Candlelight Christmas” has been New Trinity Baroque’s most popular, well-attended concert over the years, either selling out or almost doing so each year.
While presenting live concerts of a specialty genre is an increasingly expensive enterprise, it affords a way to being musicians and audiences closer together. This Sunday’s concert provides Atlanta audiences one excellent opportunity to become acquainted and celebrate the season with Baroque music rendered in the intriguing timbres of instruments for which it was originally written. ₪
• Mark Gresham is also a regular contributing writer for ArtsATL.