For 20 years now, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble has blazed a trail in these parts for the music of the 17th and 18th centuries, played on period instruments in appropriate style. Its concert on Friday, Nov. 27, before a packed house in the old Gates of Heaven hall, showed that the ensemble is enjoying, if a bit belatedly, the benefits of the general surge of interest in early music on the part of the Madison public.
Reduced this time to five performers -- four instrumentalists and one singer -- the group still presented a program of typical variety and delight. Familiar vocalist mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sañudo sang one of Handel's early Italian cantatas, and also an aria from one of Bach's sacred cantatas. (Its urging of faith in Christ as an alternative to worldly goods and riches felt strange to her, she said, when she sang it in Beloit the previous evening -- on Black Friday!)
In a further contribution to "the minimum daily requirement of Bach," as harpsichordist Max Yount put it, he played one of the composer's keyboard preludes and fugues. On the Gallic side, flautist Monica Steger addressed an extended sonata by Michel Blavet with her usual adroitness and flair.
There was more of a theme to the program than usual: music for the cello. Visiting cellist Eleanor Christman Cox joined the ensemble's anchor, Anton TenWolde, in an opening canon for two cellos by the 17th-century champion of the instrument, Domenico Gabrielli. A fascinating piece, really a strict round. The two rotated functions as soloist and as continuo player in two cello sonatas, one by Vivaldi, the other by Francesco Geminiani. The latter piece was particularly interesting in its elevation of the bass (continuo cello) line to genuine partnership with the solo part. Both were played brilliantly.
Enforced by the unusual turnout, the applause was atypically thunderous each time. TenWolde admitted that this was the largest audience the group had ever drawn. A slack Thanksgiving weekend may have helped, as did apparently heightened publicity the ensemble has been receiving. Whatever the reasons, this was a landmark event for the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble. This audience strained the facilities of the Gates of Heaven, whose intimacy is such an asset to performance of this literature. If such growth continues, might there prove to be a need for two Madison performances of each program instead of the usual one?
At any rate, together with the grand turnout for the Monteverdi Vespers performance on Nov. 7, we have renewed evidence of how strong and growing and enthusiastic an audience Madison now has for early music.