Discovering the Beauty of Czech Baroque Music

Review of Party Bohemienne at Early Music Seattle

Written by TeenTix Newsroom Writer Harlan Liu and edited by Teen Editorial Staff Member Audrey Gray

Nate Helgeson photo courtesy Early Music Seattle

The Kingdom of Bohemia, now known as Czechia, was located in central Europe for more than a millennium and was a melting pot of cultural influences. Musicians would travel to and through this land-locked country, bringing with them musical influences from other countries such as Italy and Germany where Vivaldi and Bach reigned. Party Bohemienne, presented by Early Music Seattle and featuring the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, seeks to spotlight the compositions that came out of this rich musical society. Nate Hegelson, the director and bassoonist in the event, describes the musical event’s aim to highlight lesser-known Czech composers from the Baroque period. The pieces Hegelson chose for this event contain several elements typical of the classic Baroque style, but they elaborate on all of these elements to create a unique, truly Bohemian style.

The performance I attended was at the Bastyr University Chapel, a gorgeous chapel with tiled mosaics on the walls and a St. Petersburg-reminiscent frieze at the altar. The weathered wooden paneling created a gothic aesthetic and also lent a hand to mimic the original sound of Baroque Era performances, in great halls and estates. The chapel’s uncomfortable pews added a layer of authenticity to the performance. Looking at the program, I didn’t recognize any of the names there—the director was right about the little-known status of the composers.

The highlight of the event was the array of composers featured, all of whom were either of Czech origin or who had taken up residence there at one point during their musical career. Some pieces in the program, particularly those of František Tůma, had strong Italian influences in their writing style, opting for more dramatic dynamics and repeated themes. Others, such as Johann Friedrich Fasch’s Bassoon Concerto in C Major, were trailblazers in their time for writing for what was then considered a background instrument. Many of these then-famous composers were idolized by the likes of Mozart and Haydn; if you pay close attention, you can sometimes catch similar themes or patterns in these Czech composers’ pieces.

The instrument selection was typical of a Baroque Era performance except for a theorbo, a lute with 14 strings and twice the range. The first piece, the Allegro from Orschler’s Sonata in F minor, was mainly composed around a string melody, like most Baroque pieces of the time, but it was nice to hear the low notes from the bassoon resonating nicely in the chapel. The violinists were excellent both in leading the orchestra and also in creating dynamic differences between repeated themes. The way first violinist Rachell Ellen Wong in particular swayed and dipped into the highs and lows of the sonata made it clear they had genuine connections to the piece. Moving together as a small ensemble significantly helped to sync up the parts during a piece, and it showed through the well-executed rising and falling dynamics, which added to the exaggerated Baroque style.

Some of the compositions reminded me strongly of more popular composers of the time. František Jiránek’s compositions reminded me of Vivaldi, with their consistently repeated patterns and how they harnessed the full potential of each instrument. Hegelson’s decision to highlight Jiránek in his program made perfect sense—his music is a wonderful example of the dynamism of the Baroque Era style. Another similarity was between popular early Baroque music and the outer movements of Tůma’s Partita in D, a 4, both of which utilize staccato and harpsichord heavily in main themes.

The standout piece of the evening was Hegelson’s performance of the Fasch bassoon concerto. The chapel’s wooden ceiling created a warm tone, especially on the low notes of the piece. As someone who knows little to nothing about the bassoon, the concerto gave me a newfound appreciation for the sound quality and range of the instrument. Particularly during the concerto’s Largo movement, it was impressive how quickly Hegelson transitioned from rich, sustained notes into light, jaunty ones. In previous pieces, the cello and bassoon seemed to play very similar parts, but in this concerto, there was more room for both of their sounds to shine—the program did an excellent job at highlighting the strengths of all the instruments present.

The theorbo and its player John Lenti were an excellent addition to the performance. The best way to describe the instrument is a classically played guitar that blended well with the harpsichord. Before the performance, Lenti came out and introduced the audience to the instrument to familiarize us with it and also to highlight its importance in the Baroque Era of music. The Seattle Baroque Orchestra fully did the compositions and period justice by utilizing Baroque-style bows and instruments, dramatic pauses, and emphasizing the compositions’ thick layers and patterns.

Even for those familiar with Baroque pieces and composers, this event is eye-opening and provides an opportunity to fully analyze what sets apart Czech Baroque music from other music from that period. It’s an exciting event that successfully highlights the importance of recognizing underrepresented composers, and the musicians from the Seattle Baroque Orchestra had excellent style and technique to match. The Bastyr University Chapel was the perfect location for dropping the audience into a scene from that period, almost like a true Bohemian court. Overall, the event was a great opportunity to discover and appreciate the rich cultural influences of Czech composers and their musical influences.

Lead Photo Credit: Nate Helgeson photo courtesy Early Music Seattle

The TeenTix Newsroom is a group of teen writers led by the Teen Editorial Staff. For each review, Newsroom writers work individually with a teen editor to polish their writing for publication. The Teen Editorial Staff is made up of 5 teens who curate the review portion of the TeenTix blog. More information about the Teen Editorial Staff can be found HERE.

The TeenTix Press Corps promotes critical thinking, communication, and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. For more information about the Press Corps program see HERE.

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