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Baroque in the Twilight Zone

A preview by Betsy Schwarm

For many persons, the phrase ‘Twilight Zone’ brings to mind a repeating four-note musical motif, as well as both the face and the voice of program host Rod Serling.  However, in the case of the Colorado Chamber Players [CCP] October 2022 ‘Twilight Zone’ concerts, Serling is absent and that obsessive motif is replaced by Baroque Era continuo.  Nonetheless, there is still plenty of otherworldly aural imagery, and even spoken texts to add an extra dimension.

Barbara Hamilton, Viola d’amore
Guiseppe Tartini

Of the evocative program title, CCP artistic director and violist d’amore Barbara Hamilton says there were two notions in mind.  “The first aspect,” she says, “was performing some of the more unusual, strange and atmospheric music from the Baroque Era, music that could easily relate to the Twilight Zone of the modern era.”   For example, according to the composer himself, Giuseppe Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata was inspired by a dream in which he heard the devil playing fiendishly difficult music on the violin.  English Baroque composers Anthony Holborne and Henry Purcell are less overtly demonic, though in Hamilton’s words, their selected works “have an eerie and spooky effect,” in part due to the minor keys in which they are set. 

Sarah Biber, viola da gamba
Marin Marais

For the truly surreal, consider French Baroque composer Marin Marais’ evocation of abdominal surgery before anesthetics.  Surely none of us have had that experience, though he swore he did, and that his Tableau de l’Opération de la Taille seeks to evoke the experience.   How?  CCP violist da gamba Sarah Biber attests, “You can hear the shrieks from the gamba at the appropriate moments.”  For those who imagine Baroque program music as Vivaldi’s seasonal bird twitters, hail storms, and harvest festivals, Marais brings musical expression into an entirely new realm, one that might well seem like a Twilight Zone.  The included narration is Marais’ own idea, lest any listener miss the point at which he is aiming.

Emily Dickinson

Several of the other works on the CCP program will be prefaced by suitably evocative poetry, spoken by actor Chris Kendall, who has worked with CCP before, portraying Beethoven in the ensemble’s ‘Incessant Hum’ program in 2020.  The verses for ‘Twilight Zone,’ chosen by artistic director Barbara Hamilton, include the famed “Double, double, toil and trouble” from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but also Emily Dickinson’s vision of a haunted mind, Robert Herrick’s of a hag riding with the Devil, and current Irish poet Moya Cannon’s musings on not-quite vanished love: “Unseen, it informs the hill, and, like the hidden strings of the viola d’amore, makes the hill reverberate.”  Kendall himself remarks, “The texts themselves already sing with such a macabre energy… I have moods in mind for the various pieces, but it will have to be in rehearsal that the final shape emerges.”

Chris Kendall
Moya Cannon

Moya’s poem bring us back to the second twilight-flavored idea from which the CCP’s program title derived, the twilight moods and colors of the viola d’amore and the viola da gamba, two instruments mostly identified with the Baroque Era.  Neither sounds quite like a modern viola, and CCP’s Hamilton commissioned for herself a new viola d’amore, so she could play music of this era in a more ‘original instrument’ manner.  She reminds us that Leopold Mozart (Wolfgang’s father) wrote of the instrument, “It is an exceptionally charming instrument in the still of twilight.”  Call upon brilliant brass for visions of midday, but if one is thinking of twilight, the viola d’amore and the viola da gamba might be exactly what one needs.

For its October ‘Twilight Zone’ programs, CCP presents music for baroque violin, viola d’amore, viola da gamba, baroque cello, and harpsichord.  Other than the relative brittleness of the harpsichord sound, in comparison to the bowed instruments, one might mistake the mix for a blend of similar colors.  However, in Baroque consort music, the magic lies in the subtleties, both of playing technique and compositional methods. 

viola da gamba

Sarah Biber, performing on viola da gamba and baroque cello, observes, if a listener is “equipped with the color-palette of the modern orchestra,” that listener might miss the contrasts.  Biber advises that listeners endeavor to bring to it Baroque Era ears: “If you immerse yourself in consort music, it’s easy to be totally swept up by counterpoint, conversation, imitation, etc., that is involved in playing it.”  As the native peoples of the Arctic have 100 words for snow, so early Baroque Era composers had 100 ways to bring aural colors from string instruments. 

The Colorado Chamber Players will give three performances of ‘Twilight Zone’ in three different venues.

  • Friday, October 21 @ 6pm at Epiphany Lutheran Church, 790 South Corona, near Washington Park
  • Saturday, October 22 @ 2pm at the Montclair Civic Center “The Molkery”, 6820 East 12th Avenue, just east of Monaco
  • Sunday, October 23 @ 7:30pm at the Broomfield Auditorium, 3 Community Park Road, east of Main Street (next to Broomfield Library)

The Friday 6 pm program and the Sunday 7:30 pm program (though not Saturday) will also be available via livestream.  On all three occasions, performers will be Paul Primus, Barbara Hamilton, Sarah Biber, Sarah Graf, Karl Reque, and Chris Kendall.

For tickets and further information, visit this link on the CCP website:

‘Twilight Zone’, with strange and supernatural music of the Baroque Era, from the Colorado Chamber Players.  It’ll still be a week before Halloween, but there’s always the excitement finding something new in the music world, even if that “new” is 300 to 400 years old.  As Chris Kendall observes, “If all goes well, we will be leaving goosebumps behind.”

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