Hidden Valley Workshop for Recorder Players

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The Farallon Quartet

This week Hidden Valley Music Seminars is hosting a weeklong workshop for recorder players as part of the “Road Scholar” (formerly “Elderhostel”) program. Attendees have come from all over to participate. As part of the experience, the workshop faculty members give a Sunday evening concert to kick off the following week’s workshop sessions, which are open to the public. Since the primary focus is the workshop, Hidden Valley does not do a lot of active promotion of such concerts, which is a pity, since the offerings are always top quality.

This past Sunday’s concert by the Farallon Quartet is a case in point. Letitia Berlin, Frances Blaker, Louise Carslake and Claudia Gantivar are in the upper echelon of recorder players worldwide, and they put on a concert that showed the sensitivity and virtuosic possibilities of an instrument that may people consider little more than a child’s toy. The rich array of instruments used by the quartet were certainly not toys. Rather, they were matched by the maker in tone and voicing so as to play together seamlessly so as to achieve an incredible blend.

Blend is vital to a recorder consort. The pure sound of the instrument is unforgiving, and any slight deviation can be very distracting. This also applies to intonation. The slightest deviation from accurate tuning can be downright painful to listen to. The players must constantly be adjusting breath pressure and fingerings for every note to keep in tune. The Farallon Quartet handled this challenge easily and exquisitely. At many times, it was as if one was listening to the flute ranks of an organ, and in fact, some of Sunday’s musical offerings from Renaissance Mexico had the option of being played either on that king of keyboard instruments or on recorders.

The evening started off with a selection of medieval pieces from Spain. The musicians wisely had these flow one into the other without a noticeable break, giving the audience variety while slipping gently into that unusual sound world. This was followed by a set of three pieces all based on the French chanson Doulce memoire by Pierre Sandrin. The first was the straight setting of the song in four parts. They were then joined by Adam Cockerham on the Renaissance vihuela, (which is similar to the early guitar) in an arrangement by Diego Ortiz. He played the underlying vocal lines while Ms. Gantivar played a very florid ornamented solo line on the alto recorder in a performance that took your breath away. The last setting or the tune was by Antonio de Cabezon, and had all four recorders playing highly ornamented versions of their parts.

In addition to the use of the vihuela, the Farallon Quartet varied the texture by utilizing a variety of sizes of recorder in different groupings. Sometimes all four would play together, sometimes three, and there were times when only one recorder was playing. Because of the inherent physics of the instrument, most of the musical subtleties on recorders are achieved through articulation, most of which is done by varying the manner of tonguing. This is not easy to do, but each of these musicians was clearly expert at it. They had clearly worked out the minutest details of these techniques, yielding a uniformity of approach and sound that was nuanced and artistic.

There was not a lot of talking by the performers, but comments were made as needed. Louise Carslake gave a delightful rendition of the narrative that was the underlying basis for Mateo Flecha the Elder’s “La Bomba,” with its musical description of the foundering of a ship at sea during a storm and the ensuing rescue of the sailors. The piece is quite complex, and the explanation helped the audience follow the ins and outs of the music.

Each of the performers used four or five different instruments in different sizes and keys. The smallest I was able to notice was a sopranino, which is about two thirds the size of the typical grade school soprano recorder. The largest was a contrabass, which sounds an octave below the normal bass recorder and is nearly six feet in length. The group used Renaissance style recorders exclusively. They have a louder and more piercing sound than the better known Baroque recorders. It was a thrill to hear them all.

Next Sunday two of the members of this quartet will be in concert with the group Calextone performing music from 14th and 15th century France. The concert starts at 7:30pm as the premiere event for next week’s Viola da Gamba workshop for the Road Scholars. If last Sunday’s concert was any indication, it should be a terrific experience. For those who are curious about the workshops, the participants are giving free concerts at 6:30pm this Friday and next.

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