The Upward Flight of the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado
By Marc Shulgold
Some cool ideas just take some time to grow from dream to reality. No one knows this more than Frank Nowell, a soft-spoken man with a great deal of patience, it seems. Not to mention courage. This man had quite a dream.
“It started out as my idea. It came to me five years before we actually started playing,” said Nowell (rhymes with vowel), recalling his concept, born 15 years ago, of forming a Baroque orchestra for the Front Range community. “That idea became my dream.”
Considering that this region has had trouble supporting a mainstream symphony orchestra all these years, it sounds like an impossible dream. Could this football-mad, ski-crazy, country music-loving community embrace the esoteric concept of a small, period-instrument ensemble playing music of the Baroque Era exclusively? Could such a thing fly? It took five years for that dream to come true.
In 2005, Nowell’s Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado took its maiden flight on fragile wings – and a prayer. It’s been soaring ever since.
Audiences of all ages and stripes now follow the BCOC from one venue to another – the group’s 2015-16 season lists seven different performing spaces in Denver, Boulder, Highlands Ranch and Cherry Hills Village. Wherever the group lands, the music-making is always top-notch. And here’s a surprise for those who think that early music is little more than a dry, scholarly exercise: The concerts led by artistic director Nowell and his faithful companions also feature high energy playing and lots of onstage smiles.
Leading the ensemble from her high-profile place, standing at the first-violin desk, Cynthia Miller Freivogel is a woman in constant motion during a performance, clearly unable to contain her passion for the music of Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi and the others. She is not a distraction – quite the contrary, she demonstrates that this music from centuries past is still alive and well and, yes, exciting. As she consistently demonstrates when stepping out for solo concertos, her playing is spot-on and inescapably engaging.
The violinist unhesitatingly defends her lively approach. “I think the body is just another tool of performance, to show the music,” she wrote in an e-mail from her home in Amsterdam (Freivogel travels to Denver five times a year to play with the BCOC). “To show how beautiful it is – or painful or intelligent or funny – and where the (musical) phrase is going. I want the audience to see how I hear the score.”
Though she leads the rehearsals (noting that Nowell runs things “behind the scenes” and remains an important presence at the keyboard), Freivogel insists that the shaping of a performance is truly a group effort. “The ideal is that the musical interpretation comes out of collaboration with everyone in the group,” she says.
Meanwhile, Nowell is content to sit calmly at the harpsichord or chamber organ and provide steady accompaniment. He does not conduct – no one does. That would not be true to the Baroque spirit. Which brings up the inevitable question of authenticity.
“We try to do research,” he says. “We examine scores and read up on performance practice. But mostly, we learn from our instruments, to find out their possibilities and limitations. When we rehearse, it seems that certain kinds of phrasing just makes sense on the instrument.”
Some of the BCOC players own antique instruments, while others play on modern-built re-creations. In all cases, gut strings and Baroque bows are employed by the violins, violas, cellos, viola da gamba and bass. Whenever the music calls for it, a long-necked theorbo is added to the mix. Non-string performers offer authoritative playing on flute, oboe, bassoon, recorder, etc. Through the years, numerous string, wind and brass players have served as guest artists, along with vocal soloists, chamber groups such as the Novello Quartet and three chamber choirs – not to mention Ballet Nouveau Colorado (now known as Wonderbound).
Nowell gives praise to all of these musicians who form the foundation of an orchestra that is confidently up to the standard of America’s finest period-instrument ensembles. “We’ve been lucky to work with most of the same people,” he said, adding that 11 original members are still in the orchestra. “That continuity, collaboration and commitment is so crucial. There’s a feeling of family that was there from the start.”
And what of the future? It’s looking bright – just consider that the annual BCOC budget has grown from $25,000 to $165,000. “We’re now in a new phase,” Nowell enthuses. “We’re growing our staff, we’ve formed a (non-profit) 501(c) 3, so we can raise funds, and we have a very strong, passionate board. We want to expand our impact, now that Baroque music has gained a wider appeal. Maybe we could do some tours or perform at a big Baroque festival around the country.
“We’re all asking ourselves, ‘What’s next?’ ”
The Baroque Chamber Orchestra opens its season with “Encore! Audience Favorites” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17 in Regis University’s Claver Recital Hall, 3333 Regis Blvd., and Sunday, Oct. 18 at 3 p.m. in Wellshire Presbyterian Church, 2999 S. Colorado Blvd. Information: bcocolorado.org or 303-889-1012.