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“Contagious, in a Good Way!” La Fiocco LIVE! at the Great Auditorium

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

Music lovers are streaming into the Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove, NJ, this Thursday, July 22, 2021 evening for a concert by La Fiocco. Founded in 2010 by musician Lewis R. Baratz, the ensemble performs compositions from the late Renaissance, Baroque, and early Classical eras of music on period instruments.

As we enter the historic auditorium, we find the members of La Fiocco — Lewis R. Baratz, Nadir Aslam, Benjamin T. Berman, Jorge Torres, and Vivian Barton Dozier — on stage tuning their instruments in preparation for tonight’s performance. As they work, we talk with several of the musicians about some of the period instruments they’ll be playing this evening.

First, we chat with Nadir Aslam who plays the baroque violin. Says Aslam, “Although the violin hasn’t changed much in 500 years,” there are “several differences” between the modern violin and the baroque violin. Externally, according to Aslam, the baroque model has “a shorter fingerboard” and “a flat tailpiece, which is smaller.” Moreover, inside the instrument, “the sound post’s diameter is smaller, and there’s a smaller bass bar,” which, he says, tends to give the instrument a “smaller and thinner sound.”

Next, we chat with La Fiocco’s founder, Lewis R. Baratz, who plays recorder, tin whistle, harpsichord, mountain dulcimer, bodhrán, and tabor. Explains Baratz, “Recorders from the late 16th and early 17th century are made in one or two pieces from maple, whereas a larger model I’ll play for the solo pieces, the alto recorder, was popular around 1700.”

Baratz also shows us a modern version of an Irish penny whistle — famous for its use on the Titanic film soundtrack — which, he says, “is made of PVC piping” rather than tin. Lastly, Baratz talks about three additional instruments he’ll be playing tonight — a mountain dulcimer, which is a “fretted folk instrument,” the bodhrán, which he refers to as “an Irish drum,” and the tabor, which is “a small drum.”

Although Benjamin T. Berman is the harpsichordist in the ensemble, beyond La Fiocco, he is also an organist and pianist. States Berman, “The piano has hammers that strike several strings at once, but the harpsichord plucks a single string upward from below.” When asked how one can play loudly or softly on such an instrument, Berman discloses, “It’s not the touch or how hard you hit a note, but how many notes you play and how you articulate them.”

Lastly, we chat with Jorge Torres, who plays baroque guitar and lute in La Fiocco. Notes Torres, “The baroque guitar is smaller in size than its modern counterpart, and rather than having six strings, it has four courses of two strings in addition to an additional single string, making for a total of nine strings.”

According to Torres, however, the baroque lute “has 13 courses of strings” and “movable frets,” so to play an instrument with such a wide fingerboard and so many strings, “the musician plays many of the lower courses of strings with the thumb.”

Once the musicians have finished tuning, Gordon Turk, artistic director of the 2021 Summer Stars Classical music series at the Great Auditorium, takes to the stage to announce, “We have a special treat tonight! This is the first time La Fiocco is playing here. Please give an Elizabethan welcome to our musicians!”

As the five members of the ensemble take their places on stage, Baratz tells the crowd, “This is our first live concert in 18 months!” La Fiocco then begins the evening’s festivities with a collection of “masque dances” from the 16th and 17th centuries written by Michael Praetorius and John Adson in addition to several anonymous composers.

First up in the set is the French “Torch Dance” which features Baratz on the tabor, Aslam on the violin, Berman on the harpsichord, Torres on the lute, and Vivian Barton Dozor bowing on the viola da gamba.

On this piece, Aslam plays quick runs on the violin which are accompanied by march-like chords and percussion by the rest of the ensemble.

Baratz is featured on recorder on “Allemande,” a piece from the Netherlands/Holland, where his solo is lively, sweet, and melodic. The ensemble follows up with the English “Cuperaree” (aka “Grayes Inn Masque”) on which Baratz switches recorders for a different feel, and the music meanders while it’s gently supported by the strings and harpsichord. Contrastingly, on “The Satyr’s Masque,” the musicians follow one another as the tune dances and prances about with quick lively rhythms.

“Adson’s Masque,” a courtly dance, is up next. The musicians’ bodies gently sway while they play and breathe together as if they are one with their respective instruments. The viola da gamba bows steadily in contrast to the violin’s quick runs.

The group concludes their set of “masque dances” with “The Second Witches Dance.” Recorder, baroque guitar, and harpsichord begin this humorous piece where the harpsichord makes unusual sounds that clash with the other instruments.

After the violin joins in the fun, the song becomes a rousing sea shanty and ends with a giggle, not to mention hearty applause from the audience.

Various members of La Fiocco take a short break from the musical performance aspect of tonight’s presentation to tell the audience about some of the period instruments they’re using tonight. For instance, Baratz reveals how the recorders he plays are based on instruments which are older and simpler than the baroque recorder many children learn in elementary school which was invented after 1680.

After Aslam tells the audience a bit about his baroque violin, he and La Fiocco perform “Batalla de Barabaso yerno de Satanas” by Andrea Falconieri. The fiery Italian/Spanish piece has the musicians taking turns echoing one another, the instruments conversing while weaving a tapestry of sound for all of the music lovers in the auditorium to savor and enjoy.

They follow up with Nicolaes A. Kempis’ “Den Lustelijken Mey,” a selection from the Netherlands which is slower and more stately, and which has Baratz’s runs on the recorder and Aslam’s violin part accompanied with a steady viola da gamba and harpsichord background.

Following avid applause, Baratz talks about how the viola da gamba, lute, and harpsichord function together as “continuo” instruments which, as he explains, “create a unified accompanying part that includes the bass line and harmonies in music from the Baroque period.”

Baratz continues with a piece by Daniel Purcell entitled “Prelude,” a sweet and commanding recorder solo that is played with accuracy and skill. Lute, viola da gamba, and harpsichord begin a stately piece known as “The Duke of Norfolk” (aka “Paul’s Steeple”) which is joined by violin in addition to tambourine, which adds a jingling sound to this happy and moving song.

The recorder’s sweet and quick runs are featured on “Johney Cock thy Beaver” and are accompanied by the “continuo” instruments of guitar, viola da gamba, and harpsichord.

At the end of the piece, an excited audience member can be heard exclaiming, “Aw, that’s beautiful!”

Baratz introduces the next set of 17th century English country dances by John Playford that use a “caller” to announce the dance moves, similar to American square dancing.” First up is “All in a Garden Greene,” a dance-like duet with strummed baroque guitar and underhand-bowing on the viola da gamba. The drum starts off “The Glory of the West,” a stately and rhythmic piece which ends with a flourish. The fluttering recorder line of “Prince Rupert’s March,” a rousing and majestic song, is accompanied by a march-like accompaniment on lute, viola da gamba, and harpsichord.

A highlight of this evening’s concert is the group’s performance of the facetious “Upon a Summer’s Day” on which Benjamin Berman’s voice sings out on the humorous “I smell a rat” refrain, the violin echoing the catchy melody for the delighted congregation. The mood changes, however, with a lilting violin solo on “Stingo” (aka “The Oyle of Barley”), the gentle uplifting song ending with an ascending line that brings joy to the listening audience.

La Fiocco concludes tonight’s performance with a selection of songs from Colonial America starting with “Apples in Winter/Morrison’s Jig/Old Kilferona Jig,” a rhythmic medley featuring pizzicato plucking on the viola da gamba and baroque guitar which contrasts with alternating tin whistle and violin melodies. Next, Baratz’s mountain dulcimer adds its voice to the plucking viola da gamba bass line on “The Red Head Boy,” a short but sweet tune that sets audience members’ toes a-tapping.

Irish-sounding tin whistle, strummed baroque guitar, and low viola da gamba bowing lead the way for sweet violin, percussive harpsichord, and bodhrán playing on the happy-sounding “The Rakes of Kildare.”

Lastly, Benjamin T. Berman’s voice is featured once again on “The Battle of the Kegs,” a song with lyrics by Francis Hopkinson that talks about a favorite pastime of the Revolutionary War — “blowing up British ships.” Music lovers in the crowd quickly recognize the song’s familiar “Yankee Doodle” melody as they enjoy the ensemble’s delightful interpretation. The audience responds with a standing ovation for the talented group, and calls of “Bravo!” are rewarded with an encore performance of “Upon a Summer’s Day,” along with with its comedic “I smell a rat” refrain.

As we make our way outside the Great Auditorium, we take a moment to chat with several audience members who share their opinions regarding tonight’s program by La Fiocco. Comments Lois from Wall, “I absolutely loved it! I don’t get to see a lot of early music like this. It was full of beautiful, restful sounds, and I just loved the explanations that Lewis Baratz gave. The program was very informative — and it sure beats watching reruns on TV!”

Alexandra from Howell concurs, adding, “It was an absolute pleasure! I’m so glad that COVID is loosening up and we can get back to live concerts.” Acknowledging, “I had heard a lute before, and I’ve been to Ireland and played the bodhrán,” Alexandra admits, “I thought the viola da gamba was a cello at first, so I was happy to learn more about the various instruments,” before concluding, “All the musicians are very talented!”

Nancy from Ocean Grove tells us, “Our family enjoys going to Williamsburg, VA so we’ve heard several of these historic instruments played before, but this is the most talented group I’ve ever seen.” Declaring, “I was inspired! Now, I’m going to find out more about English country dancing for my daughter; I think she would love to try it,” Nancy also tells us how much she enjoys hearing concerts in this historic venue, explaining, “I’ve been coming to concerts here for years. There’s no place like the Great Auditorium!”

Lastly, we chat with Ellen from Cleveland, Ohio who contends, “I was delighted that this was the group’s first concert back after the pandemic,” continuing, “The program was varied and the musicianship was superb,” before concluding, “The performers delighted in what they were doing, and it was contagious, in a good way!”

To learn more about La Fiocco, please go to lafiocco.org.

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