For nearly two decades, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble has been the pioneer force in introducing audiences in Madison and around the state to the beauties of 17th- and 18th-century music. The group's Madison performances, usually three concerts a season, are offered at the old Gates of Heaven building in James Madison Park on the near east side. Its facilities are spartan, but the sense of intimacy between performers and audiences is an important element of these events, which feature the sounds of early instruments that would fit less well in oversized halls.
Though cellist Anton TenWolde is a cofounder and guiding spirit of the group, it is, he has always stressed, a collective. The circle of musicians who participate propose the material that they themselves will contribute, so that programs are of guaranteed diversity and personal commitment. Thus it was for this season's opener, on Saturday evening, Oct. 16, which offered music ranging from the 16th through the 18th centuries. The earliest music was, indeed, vocal, pointing up the fact that singers have frequently joined the period instrumentalists for the group's concerts. Two vocal regulars are Mimmi Fulmer, of crystalline soprano clarity, and Consuelo Sañudo, of mezzo-soprano richness. They first offered two duets by Claudio Monteverdi, on contrasting issues of love. Later, they delivered the earliest piece of all, a duet composed by Luzzasco Luzzaschi for the famous "Concerto delle Donne" (or Ladies Ensemble) at the court of Ferrara.
Two players were unaccompanied. Eric Miller performed two pieces by Carl Friedrich Abel, written for solo viola da gamba at a time when that instrument was being left behind by the cello. And, on a Baroque single-key instrument, Rebecca Meier-Rao played the 10th of Georg Philipp Telemann's set of 12 multi-movement fantasias for unaccompanied transverse flute. She also opened the program with a sonata attributed to Franz Benda in which her flute part was technically an "accompaniment" to that of the main instrument, the keyboard.
Harpsichordist Max Yount, an anchor through much of the program, took the solo spotlight to play one of J.S. Bach's preludes and fugues for harpsichord, prefacing it with illuminating remarks about Bach's clever use of intervallic doublings in the fugue. And TenWolde himself presented a lively sonata for cello and basso continuo by Francesco Geminiani to wind things up. Varied and elegant music, played in authentic style, in a properly scaled setting. In other words, business as usual for the plucky and persistent WBE. And their next concert is on November 27.