The pure sound of ancient music

March 10, 1994|By Tamia Karpeles | Tamia Karpeles,Special to The Sun

Annapolis -- Carolyn Anderson Surrick is on a fact-finding mission. The classically trained musician stands alone in the nave of the Cathedral Church of the Incarnation and sings. She listens to the echoes. Her analysis? "The acoustics are just too cool."

For Ms. Surrick and the other members of Ensemble Galilei, acoustics are paramount. Balancing the sounds of several ancient instruments -- instruments that were not originally intended to blend -- is the essence of their art. Acoustics can make or break a performance.

"You want a room that's alive," explains Ms. Surrick, who holds a master's degree in musicology, "but not too alive. So you listen to the echoes to see what the reverberation is like. Then you try to imagine whether the sound will carry with 200 people in there."

While the Episcopal cathedral is acoustically cool, the Great Hall on St. John's campus in Annapolis remains the venue by which other sites are measured. For the past four years, almost since the group formed, Ensemble Galilei has delivered a sellout Christmas concert there. And every year, National Public Radio's "Performance Today" has rebroadcast the program nationally on Christmas Eve.

"Individual members of the ensemble play all around the country," Ms. Surrick says, "and what we're finding is that more and more people have heard of us."

The idea for the group came to Ms. Surrick in 1989, when she was working on her master's and directing the instrumental ensemble of the Collegium Musicum at George Washington University. She began thinking of a sound that would blend the best of classical technique and folk tradition.

She took up the idea with Maggie Sansone, a musician who brought not only a richly diverse folk repertoire, but also her own record label -- Maggie's Music -- to the enterprise.

Together with Marcia Diehl and Jim Brooks, members of the Collegium, they began to develop what they sometimes refer to as Celtic chamber folk music.

Sue Richards, a national Scottish harp champion, joined the group during its second year, and national Scottish fiddle champion Bonnie Rideout is a frequent guest.

They released their first album, "Music in the Great Hall," in 1992 to encouraging reviews. A Washington Post reviewer summed up the recording as "a fusion of Celtic folk and Italian court music that should please both sides of the fence."

"Ancient Noels," Ensemble Galilei's recent Christmas CD, was similarly well-received and earned them interviews on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," "Sun day Morning Acoustics" on WHFS radio and "Traditions" on the Washington PBS station, WETA.

Much of the ensemble's attraction is rooted in its intrinsic chemistry, says Benjamin Roe, music producer for NPR's "Performance Today." "There's an ease about the way they play that seems to break down the barriers that normally exist between an audience and a performer. Their repertoire is very engaging, and the audience is clearly enthusiastic."

This is what makes the Episcopal cathedral so attractive as a site for the group's first spring concert. "The whole point of playing in a live performance is to touch something in someone," Ms. Surrick explains. "You don't want to be so far away from the audience that you're on another planet. The cathedral feels surprisingly intimate for its size."

The chemistry that characterizes Ensemble Galilei's live concerts is earned through intensive group rehearsal sessions. Much of the music they work from isn't scored for individual instruments.

"This was before the period when composers wrote down every note and expected the musicians to play them," says Connie McKenna, publicist for Maggie's Music. "Typically, the composer would write down three lines of music and lay out the outlines of the melody, and the players would interpret them. They're deciding which instruments to use and what chords to play."

Beginning with a melody and an eclectic array of sounds -- hammered dulcimer, Celtic harp, viola da bamba, penny-whistle, concertina and bowed psaltery -- they search for the balance point. Arrangements evolve gradually as members come together in rehearsals, play and listen.

"The practice that we do as individuals isn't what matters," says Mr. Brooks. "The ensemble is the instrument. [Rehearsals] allow us to work on making our individual instruments come together into one sound."

During a recent rehearsal, a remarkable alchemy begins. Seated at the hammered dulcimer, Ms. Sansone picks up a hand drum and strikes the beat; a few measures later the other instruments join in, and after a moment, a vibrant, foot-tapping melody takes shape.

Abruptly, Mr. Brooks halts the music and a discussion of the arrangement follows. Ms. Rideout, with a pencil stuck behind her ear, marks her music; Ms. Richards prefers to tag the score with a Post-It note: "Practice this."

The ensemble spends the next three hours polishing one hour of music. They play, and they debate tempo and dynamics, instrumentation and phrasing.

Toward the end of a long rehearsal session, the group begins to tackle a new arrangement, and the first run-through is rough. Everyone is flagging. They discuss the piece and start again. And again. Gradually, the pieces fall into place, and that place is textured by the dextrous interweaving of each archaic instrument's unique sound.

At the end of the fourth take, Ms. Sansone smiles across the room. It's good.

They run through it one more time.

ENSEMBLE GALILEI

Where: The Cathedral Church of the Incarnation, University Parkway and St. Paul Street

When: Saturday at 8 p.m.

Tickets: $10 general admission; $7 students and seniors

Call: Carolyn Surrick, (410) 841-6298 for more information.

Where: Great Hall at St. John's College in Annapolis

When: Sunday at 7 p.m.

Tickets: $10 general admission; $7 students and seniors

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