Art of Improvisation, Oct. 13, 2019

Baroque & Beyond – Art of Improvisation

Sunday, October 13, 2019 at 3:00 pm

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 227 East Rosemary St, Chapel Hill

These days, many people enjoy listening to jazz. Listeners are generally aware that what they are hearing includes extended improvisations on a harmonic structure, colorful interludes between verses, or completely original material. Jazz lovers marvel at the inventiveness that flows from the fingers or vocal cords of their favorite musicians.

But improvisation is hardly new. It was a requirement during earlier eras of classical music, including music of the baroque era.

Art of Improvisation, which opens the 2019-2020 concert season of Baroque & Beyond, highlights a variety of ways that information has been passed down to us, showing how improvisation was done “back in the day”, in good taste, of course. Prefaces to musical publications encourage the faint-hearted to study these examples and then to follow suit with their own musical inspirations.

In the October 13 concert, baroque flutist Roseen Giles is featured, along with colleagues Andrew Bonner, baroque violin; Stephanie Vial, baroque cello; Beverly Biggs, harpsichord; and beloved Chapel Hill soprano Florence Peacock.

The program opens with Peacock singing an aria from Clérambault’s cantata, Orphée – Allez, Orphée, accompanied by violin and basso continuo (cello plus harpsichord). This happy aria is of the da capo type, wherein after a contrasting middle section, the first part returns, offering both singer and violinist an opportunity to add ornaments and small graces to what the composer has written.

Repertoire for solo harpsichord includes fantasias and unmeasured preludes, some of which give only pitches, with or without any note values or bar lines indicating measures. Beverly Biggs will play a short fantasia by C.P.E. Bach in which note values, while suggested, clearly invite the performer to take liberty in their execution. The piece is written as one continuous measure, with harmonic and melodic clues for interpretation. Pieces of this type might sound different at each performance and could even be radically different under the fingers of different performers.

Our featured artist Roseen Giles will perform two sonatas by Telemann, both from his Methodical Sonatas. When this set of twelve pieces was advertised in the press at the time of their publication in 1732, it was noted that the sonatas “will be very useful to those who wish to apply themselves to cantabile ornamentation”. Telemann gave the slow movements in two versions: a simple melodic line, above which appears the same general melody in a highly ornamented version.

Something similar occurs in the violin sonatas of Corelli, Op. 5. Andrew Bonner will perform the first sonata of this set, where again, the composer provided both a simple and highly ornamented version of the melody. Pieces of this type were intended to instruct musicians of the baroque era in tasteful ways that they themselves should learn to ornament and improvise.

Yet another method from which we draw inspiration is the variation form. Cellist Stephanie Vial will play two movements of a cello sonata by Salvatore Lanzetti (Op. 1, no. 6), of which the final movement is a set of variations on a theme. Interestingly, the continuo accompaniment is indicated by a bass line (with figures) below the theme, but nothing below the variations. The harpsichordist understands that the bass line and harmonies will remain the same during each variation, although of course the keyboard player’s right hand will vary (as it always does in continuo playing) to reflect and support what the soloist is doing.

The program concludes with three movements from Leclair’s Premier Récréation de Musique: a pair of passepieds, a lovely sarabande, and a concluding chaconne – a musical form of continuous variation over a short repeated bass line/harmonic pattern.

Baroque & Beyond – North Carolina, now in its 13th season, produces period-music concerts on instruments of the period under the direction of Artistic Director and harpsichordist Beverly Biggs. It has earned the affection of its audience and the respect of its peers in providing music of the baroque era, with occasional excursions into the classic era. Period instruments and historical performances practices are a hallmark of the concerts, along with interesting and innovative programming. The series is produced under the nonprofit umbrella of Preservation Chapel Hill, which has a rich history of supporting historical concerts and the arts.

Roseen Giles is Assistant Professor of Music at Duke, where her talents as musicologist and curator of the rare instrument collection claim equal time with her beautiful baroque flute playing. For musician bios, photographs, and related information, visit

Tickets for Art of Improvisation are available in advance from Preservation Chapel Hill at 919-942-7818 or  Single tickets are $20 and the three-concert series is $50. Tickets will also be available at the door.

The concert venue is Holy Trinity Lutheran Church at 227 East Rosemary Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27514. Parking is available near the sanctuary and in multiple parking lots/garages within a block or two of the church.