Chatham Baroque: thoughts on playing new non-Baroque music on Baroque instruments

Chatham Baroque press photo

Today I went to the weekly CMU music convocation, which featured the Chatham Baroque. They provided some interesting discussions and performances of musical excerpts of newly commissioned works as a preview before their official premiere tomorrow in Pittsburgh.

You might be thinking, “Wait a second, newly commissioned works for a Baroque ensemble playing Baroque instruments?” Does this mean some derivative, neo-Baroque stuff?

The answer is no.

Why would one want to play newly composed music on old instruments?

Superficially, one might wonder about the point of playing newly composed music on old instruments. But then one realizes that every instrument is an “old” instrument. The “modern” piano as we know it has been around for well over a century; it is an “old” instrument! By now, even the electric guitar is 81 years old. It’s an ancient instrument. Nobody thinks twice about writing new music for or playing music for the electric guitar.

Each instrument, no matter how old or new it is, presents unique sonorities and possibilities and technical challenges. There’s no reason not to explore new ways of exploiting and appreciating Baroque instruments in the service of fascinating new music.

Three composers

The three composers whose works we got a preview of were Moon Young Ha, Matthew McBane, and Lansing McLoskey. Each of them gave a brief introduction and talked about why they decided to write for the Chatham Baroque ensemble of violin, viola da gamba, and theorbo, and what they tried to do.

I enjoyed the Andrew, Patricia, and Scott perform excerpts of the composers’ pieces. None of them were imitative neo-Baroque pieces and they were intriguing, each in a completely different way, different harmonic and rhythmic languages and emphases.

I think it’s great that Chatham Baroque is expanding beyond the Baroque in their musical explorations. Coming up in their concert season, they will be performing with some traditional Appalachian vocalists and instrumentalists. That should be interesting!

One limitation

While enjoying the previews of the new pieces, I couldn’t help thinking back to the Pittsburgh Music Alliance season launch party that Abby and I attended recently. There, Chatham Baroque performed some music, but we could barely hear any of the instruments. At best, I could hear a bit of Andrew on Baroque violin, while the viola da gamba and theorbo were rather drowned out by the party noise.

I think a real limitation of the Baroque instruments is that they are relatively quiet and subtle. I found this a problem myself when trying to play Baroque flute in casual musical jam or party performance situations. In a quiet and intimate space, they work beautifully. But in a noisy, crowded world, they do not. That is my impression.


Just because you play a Baroque instrument doesn’t mean you have to be stuck only playing Baroque music or neo-Baroque music. The world is wide open, constrained only by taste and acoustic realities.

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