Holding the Line

Last year was a good year for continuo playing. This year promises to be even better. “Getting in the groove” is a concept that goes back to the beginning of musical time. Whether it’s a bunch of guys in animal skins banging rocks together or a modern jazz trio or a guy scratching on a turntable or tuxedo clad musicians playing Bach it doesn’t matter. We’re all doing the same thing – keeping time. It doesn’t have to be a march time beat. It can ebb and flow. The groove is round like a record or it’s a line from here to infinity or it’s the path of a snake in the sand. The main thing is – we’re doing it together.

It used to be the continuo section would have Brent Wissick playing cello. The cellist and the bassist are almost always playing exactly the same thing an octave apart. The bassist shadows the cellist who is the leader and effectively the leader of the entire ensemble (even if the conductor thinks he/she is the leader). The melodies and harmonies ride on top of the continuo line the way a jazz soloist rides on top of the rhythm section. If the line falters, the whole ensemble falls. The bassist and cellist have to be of the same mind. Intonation, timing, articulation. There are so many shapes the line can take – some are dictated by the lyrics or the melody, but often it’s just a matter of style and preference. Playing with Brent for many years we almost never had to talk about these things – it just happened. We were of the same mind. It made playing with other players feel tedious.

Those were the years of the Society for Performance on Original Instruments which later became Ensemble Courant which is now at best plays only one or two concerts a year. Brent and I rarely play but like old lovers meeting again we never have to speak of mundane details when we play together. Still of the same mind.

In more recent years I’ve been “holding the line” with Barbara Blaker Krumdieck, who can be heard this weekend with the baroque ensemble Pomodoro. When we met at our first rehearsal together a few years ago we were both eyeing each other suspiciously as the person who had the greatest potential for making the weekend a miserable one.  Happily we clicked from the first note and the line snaked onward and we have been playing together in many ensembles since. Our next performance together is February 17th with the Aurora Baroque Ensemble although we’ll be in a different configuration this time – taking turns playing continuo for each other and for the rest of the ensemble. Barbara on baroque cello and me on the new bass viol. Barbara has put together many wonderful ensembles and programs and I have been very fortunate to be a part of some of them. Watch for Wild Rose Ensemble, Ensemble Serendipity, Aurora Baroque with the great violinist David Wilson, and occasionally I even get to perform with Ensemble Vermillian.

Lastly, dear friend of 25 years Virginia Hudson and I have finally been getting to hold the line together. We’ve played in many ensembles over the years but only recently have been doing continuo together and I can say that a solid friendship really helps. The give and take and close listening required come much easier if you’re accustomed to doing that in real life. Virginia took over principle cellist duties in the ensemble for the annual performance of the Messiah in Duke Chapel and we’ve been getting other opportunities to play as well.

Additional links:
The Theory and Practice of the Basso Continuo
Triangle Early Music Presenting Organization