At 15, Colorado’s Baroque Orchestra Looks Back – and Forward
A preview by Marc Shulgold
There were no Baroque-trumpet fanfares when musical life resumed in May 2021 for the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado (BCOC). A socially distanced audience in the Lakewood Cultural Center cheered the onstage arrival of musicians for the first concert in – well, it seemed like forever. Perhaps aware of the significance of this long-awaited welcome-back, patrons gave an extended, enthusiastic ovation. For artistic director Frank Nowell and company, it was the start of an emotional evening.
“We’re going to remember that concert for a long time,” Nowell said, adding that, backstage and out of view, “there were tears.”
After a layoff lasting more than a year (save for some videos and a few virtual programs on Zoom), BCOC has returned to a schedule of live performing. On Thursday, July 29, the group’s 15th-anniversary season will kick off with harpsichordist Nowell, violinist/leader Cynthia Miller Freivogel and theorbo/guitarist Paul Holmes Morton, presenting an intimate Directors’ Concert “A Sweet and Savory Mix” at Wellshire Presbyterian Church. Tickets available by clicking here.
Nowell didn’t mince words as he looked back on the past 15 years with his merry band. “I can’t believe it,” he observed, still amazed at BCOC’s longevity – considering that, in 2005, the newborn orchestra held only modest hopes of success. “We planned for a year (of concerts), and then see how it goes. But right from the start, I saw that the (community) support was there.”
Indeed, music lovers flocked to hear early music played with energy, warmth and precision. “Our audience is quite a mixture,” Nowell said. “There are those unfamiliar with the music, who just enjoy hearing it. But there are some who are amazingly knowledgeable. They’ll make suggestions for works that maybe we’d never heard.”
Some of the orchestra’s patrons joined the board of directors, bringing in ideas and much-needed financial assistance. “We needed a committed board,” Nowell said, while emphasizing that it was the musicians who would be key to BCOC’s lasting impact. “They were the most important,” he said. “Our musicians needed to have that passion, they needed to be emotionally committed. And we do have that. It was there from the first rehearsal – and the sound was there.”
Crucial to maintaining BCOC’s musical excellence has been its leadership duo, established well before those first notes of a Corelli Concerto Grosso were heard at the group’s November 2005 debut. Nowell and Freivogel had met the previous year, their long and productive relationship beginning by simply doing what musicians do: “We started by reading music together,” he recalled. “It became a partnership, and it’s continued that way. We complement each other.”
A soft-spoken man, he indicated that the artistic success of his newly formed ensemble was heavily influenced by the dynamic personality of Freivogel, the group’s leader (the term favored by the English, when referring to the first violinist). “I was looking for a strong leader – and that role was also a goal of Cynthia’s.”
In an email sent recently from Amsterdam, Freivogel paints a more modest picture of her role. “I’m sure I was very naive and overly confident at the beginning. I am pretty sure I was always good musically at leading and had a very clear vision about how I wanted things to sound and how to get that out of the orchestra, but on a lot of other fronts I really had no idea what I was doing. I just knew I wanted it so badly.”
The connection between the two musicians was built on mutual respect that grew over time. In her email, Frievogel praised Nowell’s constant encouragement. “He always is challenging me and providing a safe space to grow,” she wrote.
Once that shared vision was established, the search for Baroque players could begin. A combination of networking and word-of-mouth, locally and nationally, brought in enough skilled musicians to form a core of 15 strings. “I always thought that the group was scaleable,” Nowell said, meaning that additional players, such as winds and brass, or guest vocal and instrumental soloists could be brought in as needed. From the beginning, he held to his dream of an orchestra capable of performing the Baroque Era’s delightful smaller works along with large masterpieces from that period, such as Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo (presented in 2019) and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (2013).
A key element in the preparation of BCOC’s concerts is its democratic process of making music. Sure, Nowell and Freivogel remain the high-profile faces of the group, but the musicians play an equally important role in matters of interpretation and repertory choices. “It’s a collaborative approach,” he stressed. “We all listen to people’s ideas. We don’t actually vote (on interpretations). There’s a lot of research involved (in correct performance practice), but mostly, we trust our instincts.”
Is it too early to ponder the next 15 years? Actually, that thought has crossed his mind, Nowell admitted. “Yes,” he mused, “What comes next?” For all those fans of BCOC, the answer is obvious: It’s Bach to the Future.
It hasn’t all been that easy. Without a permanent home base, BCOC has been constantly on the move during the course of a concert season, visiting a number of halls – perhaps challenging audiences to keep track of the venues. What could have become a major issue is the fact that, in 2012, Freivogel became a resident of Amsterdam, where she resides with her husband and pre-teen son. Communication with Nowell became critical. “We do have plenty of conversations over the phone,” he said. “It was a concern (when the violinist moved to Europe), but she’s learned to adjust.” Indeed, Freivogel insists that her connection with the orchestra remains secure. The BCOC, she wrote in her email, “always seemed like something that was current and present in my life, no matter where I was living. It has remained a safe creative space that was always on my mind.” During her occasional absences, violinist Martin Davids – himself based in Chicago – comfortably steps into the leader’s position.
Fittingly, BCOC’s journey of a decade-and-a-half continues at Wellshire Presbyterian with its two founding parents playing Baroque sonatas of Corelli and Leonarda – just as the pair had first done all those years ago. For Nowell, this event will carry a special meaning. “It feels like a new beginning. We had planned (the concert) a year ago, but then came Covid.” The event will also mark the unveiling of the 2021-22 season, which starts in October, and will announce the release of a compilation CD of live performances.