Madison has become a surprisingly lively center of early music performance, for a city of its size. More and more, singers and instrumentalists have not only been discovering a rich literature of Renaissance and Baroque music, but they have been learning how to bring it to vibrant life in its own period styles. With the annual Madison Early Music Festival each summer we also have Trevor Stephenson's Madison Bach Musicians.
But long in advance of those -- since 1990, in fact -- has been the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble. As anchor members, cellist Anton TenWolde and harpsichordist Max Yount have drawn eager young performers into their circle by preparing rare literature for concerts in Madison, at Beloit College and at other sites around the state.
Last Saturday evening, the organization fielded two singers and seven instrumentalists for the second of its three Madison concerts this season, in their regular venue of sober intimacy at the Gates of Heaven. Works by composers of the 17th and 18th centuries made up the program. Its pillars were two French Baroque cantatas, one by Michel Pignolet de Montéclair on the death of Queen Dido, sung by soprano Mimmi Fulmer, the other by Franois Bouvard on an Arcadian celebration for the shepherdess Clori, sung by mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sañudo, in each case with distinctive instrumental ensemble support. Fulmer's silvery voice and Sañudo's rich tones also joined in a sacred duet by Heinrich Schütz.
The deft fiddling of a bright new member, Eleanor Bartsch, partnered the fruity bassooning of Cynthia Cameron Fix, with gambist Duncan Pledger and Yount in the continuo roles for two contrapuntal ensemble showpieces by Tarquinio Marula. Yount continued his exploration of the keyboard works of Matthias Weckmann. And the program ended with flautist Monica Steger and violist Marika Fischer Hoyt, sustained by TenWolde and Yount, in a lively trio sonata by Georg Philipp Telemann.
In all cases the playing was on instruments of period type and design, the performers using original source notation, and working at adjusted period pitch. The performers always plunge with gusto into the recapturing of earlier timbres and lucid textures, and in the process communicate an infectious enjoyment to their audiences.
Those audiences have been growing in size and appreciation, discovering the satisfactions of novel musical byways. After nearly two decades of effort, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble has clearly established its central place in a very important new dimension of our cultural life.