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Music review: New Les Surprises Baroques in Santa Monica

April 16, 2012 |  3:04 pm

We could use more surprises in a concert scene so often encased in ritual and formula. So with that in mind, a new, roving period-performance group with a flexible roster of musicians is calling itself Les Surprises Baroques.

Getting Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock to serve as artistic director is a good first step. Now they have to build an audience, which from the looks of the pews in Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church on Sunday afternoon is currently in the embryonic stage.

This program, the group’s second, was labeled “Curiose Inventioni,” a dig through some cobwebbed corners of secular 17th century Italian repertoire. There were 21 pieces, none lasting more than a few minutes, some linked together so that it was sometimes hard to tell where one left off and the next began.  

The most engaging pieces were a pair of dances with catchy ostinato (ground bass) patterns and lively interplay: Andrea Falconieri’s Ciaccona and Marco Uccellini’s Aria sopra “La Bergamasca.” The quirkiest one was Michelangelo Rossi’s Toccata VII, a solo harpsichord piece that veered off in strange, futuristic, chromatic directions. Others were deadly dull, riddled with clichés from the period.

The surprise? Well, we had to wait until the last set of pieces, but it came — and it enlivened the afternoon considerably in a theatrical way. After Blumenstock started playing the Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi’s Sonata in dialogo “La Viena” from the wings, an unbilled guest artist, Alexandra Opsahl, emerged from the rear of the church eloquently wielding a cornetto: a slender, curved wind instrument that sounds something like a mellow trumpet.

Rotem Gilbert (recorders), Steven Lehning (violone), Ian Pritchard (harpsichord) and John Schneiderman (guitar, lute) were the other skilled players at hand. As for the personnel and locale(s) for Les Surprises’ next concert — an all-Bach program scheduled for June 30-July 1 —  so far that’s a surprise too.


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 — Richard S. Ginell