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Balm in contemplation

Fil­a­ment presents Music for an Inner World’ at Arthur Ross Gallery

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4 minute read
Each member of Filament shines in this concert recorded at Arthur Ross Gallery. (Photo by Alex Kruchoski.)

After the past year, we’re finding that life’s accelerating pace can create unexpected challenges. To counter the rush, Philadelphia baroque ensemble Filament looked to a previous age for a timely reminder of the balm found in contemplation. Playing in the University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Ross Gallery, the trio created an eloquent concert inspired by and in conversation with the “tender, witty, and richly colored world” of the 17th-century Dutch genre painters working in and around the city of Leyden, featured in the current exhibition there, An Inner World (here’s the BSR review).

Leyden was a cosmopolitan city, and in researching this concert, Filament members found that musicians moved regularly between Holland and England, so Music for an Inner World has a similar geography. Some composers are familiar, while some are unfamiliar even to early music devotees, and the repertoire explores how this era’s sophisticated polyphonic music existed alongside more rustic works with a popular appeal.

Acuity and intimacy

Surrounded by the exhibition’s deep red walls, the three musicians play a rich 50-minute concert that allows each to shine. It begins and concludes with two elegant works created for the cognoscenti, three-movement suites by English composer William Lawes (1602-1645). The opener is a soulful work in G minor, and the closing suite in D Major features solo sections that bring forward the voice of the gamba (a precursor of the cello that often plays the background continuo), which Elena Smith realizes with her customary acuity and beauty.

After the first work comes Onder een Linde Groen (Under the Linden Tree), a series of variations for solo harpsichord by Jan Peterszoon Sweelink (1562-1621), the program’s most noted composer. In ensembles of this time the harpsichord (like the gamba) is often a continuo instrument, so it’s a pleasure to hear it highlighted by a keyboard player as accomplished, sensitive, and interesting as John Walthausen. He handles runs and ornaments with easy grace, playing here on the virginal, a smaller harpsichord so-called because it was the preferred instrument of Elizabeth I. It was developed to be played in the home (as opposed to a salon), and these musicians found it had the perfect intimacy of tone for their concert.

Fireworks and dances

From two less familiar Dutch musicians come two compositions that feature fireworks for the violin, the Sonata in E minor from 12 Speelstukken by David Petersen (1650-1737) and Nasce la Pena Mia (My Torment Begins), a madrigal arranged for instruments by Johan Schop (1590-1667). Both have demanding violin passages that require virtuosic musicianship grounded in dexterous technique. As he does throughout the concert, Evan Few rises to the challenge with delight, never allowing his fiery ornamentation to impede the music’s forward motion.

The concert’s penultimate work is the highlight of this program: a set of three pieces titled The Manuscript of Suzanne van Soldt (1599). This anonymous work is an especially precious document, enormously expensive at the time—a keyboard anthology gathered for a Dutch girl (living in London) learning to play the harpsichord. Likely compiled by her teacher, the rare notebook includes music she and her audience would have known, including country dances and psalm tunes.

From the collection’s 33 works, Filament chose three pieces, beginning with “Almand Brun Smeedlyn” and concluding with “Brande Champagne,” a dancelike piece where each instrument plays the same theme and then goes into a jaunty variation, juxtaposing music appreciated by differing societal strata. Between these two is “Als Ein Hert Geyacht (Psalm 42, after Claude Goudimel),” a reflective keyboard solo. In the notated section and in his moving, elegant improvisation, Walthausen gives the work the breathing room that illuminates the theme of both the exhibition and this concert.

Music for the home

Filament’s carefully researched repertoire matches the exquisite attention to detail seen in the exhibition’s works. The trio discovered that public music was not a feature of daily life in the Netherlands, since Calvinism looked unfavorably on gatherings, and so music was primarily made in the kind of domestic settings that these 10 paintings portray.

The sensitive visual and aurally crisp recording is by Alex Kruchoski. All three instruments are equally matched audio-wise, especially important in repertoire from this period. The recording also reflects another (more recent) time: it was shot in May, so the players follow the mask mandate. And like many events recorded in museums or galleries, the paintings are rendered opaque (here slightly blackened) due to rights and reproduction issues.

The trio plays with a fervor and delight that make early music seem current, and their easy, joyful communication allows the musical intricacies to be clearly heard and followed. Early Music America (the American journal of record in the field) tapped Filament as one of its 2021 Emerging Artists. Their award presentation is a 15-minute concert on the journal’s website recorded in Philadelphia’s beautiful Gloria Dei “Old Swedes” Church, one of the ensemble’s favorite venues.

The recording of Music for an Inner World is available to stream for free through July 25, 2021 on the Arthur Ross website, and the painting exhibition An Inner World runs through the same date.

Image description: Filament musicians Elena Smith, John Walthausen, and Evan Few, playing the gamba, the harpsichord, and the violin in the red-walled Arthur Ross Gallery.

What, When, Where

Music for an Inner World. Evan Few, violin; Elena Smith, gamba; John Walthausen, harpsichord. Filament. Recorded May 2021 at the Arthur Ross Gallery, and available to stream through July 25, 2021. Arthurrossgallery.org.

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