From a scandalous Spanish dance to its arrival, according to Charles Weaver, at a “pinnacle of German classicism” thanks to Bach, the chacona—chaconne in French—has had an astonishing trajectory. Appearing early in the 17th century as pieces for guitar, it spread like wildfire through European music into the 18th century, and merged with other musical styles, blossoming into a fascinating variety of works. American Classical Orchestra’s founder and artistic director, Thomas Crawford, had been planning a special concert dedicated to the chaconne, entitled The Chaconne Project, about which he spoke to me in a November 2020 interview. At the time, due to Covid restrictions, The Chaconne Project could only make its debut via technology. At last, a year and seven months later, the New York public was able to witness this mesmerizing concert in person at the Harlem Parish, and, by the end of evening, most felt like they were themselves part of the dance.
The Chaconne from Henry Purcell’s opera King Arthur made for a grand opening to the evening. Violinists Karen Dekker and Chloe Fedor’s luminous, swaying, uplifting duet was beautifully enriched in musical texture by Maureen Murchie’s warm viola phrases and Arnie Tanimoto’s stately cello lines and supported by Thomas Crawford’s precise and elegant touch on the harpsichord. In this piece, the typical chaconne harmonies and rhythm interplay find anchor into longer phrases creating a more imposing type of chaconne, while at the same time acquiring a flirtatious quality through musical ornaments, characteristic of the French dance. (An interesting extra tidbit here, given that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee was recently celebrated, is that this chaconne—arranged by composer Julian Herbage—was the first of the pieces played before the Queen’s official coronation service in June 1953).
Maestro Thomas Crawford regaled us to the most ornate of the chaconnes in the program: François Couperin’s La Favorite from the Troisième Ordre—Couperin’s third volume of harpsichord music. At once solemn and embellished, the piece generated a kind of addictive hypnosis in Crawford’s crisp, majestic playing that carried us into the crystalline sounds of the harpsichord’s upper musical spheres while anchoring us into its earthy lament bass, and warm, almost human voiced-like middle.
A beautiful discovery was Nicola Francesco Haym’s lesser-known Ciaccona in E-Major for which Dekker and Fedor teamed up again in a brilliant, animating cascade of sound that flirted with Tanimoto’s virtuosic viola da gamba expressions and Adam Cockerham’s suave theorbo playing. This piece in particular felt like it transported one into a distinctive, unusually stirring musical atmosphere. “Perhaps it is the E-Major key that had this effect on you,” said Maestro Crawford at the end when I manifested my surprise at the special colors and moods of this work.
Tanimoto exquisitely displayed the rich melodic and harmonic versatility of the viola da gamba in his duet with Cockerham: Marin Marais’s chaconne from Le Labyrinthe, which transmitted the effect of a personal musical conversation, a sharing of secrets between instruments. Cockerham could probably make anyone fall in love with the lovely sound of the Baroque guitar; he played Murcia’s Marionas with gracefulness and a visceral sense of rhythm and dynamics, alternating between resolute dance elements, and sweet, caressing, playful phrases.
In her solo, Chloe Fedor thrilled the audience with her virtuosic, texturally rich rendition of the intense and larger-than-life masterpiece that is Bach’s Chaconne from Partita for Violin in D minor, BWV 1004. Fedor’s breathtaking, relentless, generous, engulfing playing kept this reviewer on the edge of her seat and in awe throughout the entire piece.
The program included music by a woman: the Venice-born singer and composer, Barbara Strozzi who, during her lifetime had more music in print than any other composer. She was an absolute phenomenon for her prolific consistency and success in the 17th century music “industry” without much support from wealthy patrons or the church. Her lamenting cantata L’Eraclito amoroso alludes to the Greek, pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, also known as “the weeping philosopher.” Biographer of Greek philosophers Diogenes Laërtius summarized Heraclitus’s philosophy as: “All things come into being by conflict of opposites, and the sum of things flows like a stream.”
And it is indeed a stream of sobs and tears at a lover’s unfaithfulness, integrating the opposites of loyalty and betrayal, that console the amorous Heraclitus of this cantata, conveyed with restrained yet profound passion by mezzo-soprano Guadalupe Peraza. In this piece, as in Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa, Peraza sang with nuanced sensitivity, authentic emotion, and meticulous attention to text, dynamics, and ornaments. A nimble sculptor of sound, she molded her voice to reflect the meaning of the words, drawing the audience into an intimate, darkened world of deep sorrow punctuated with rage and determined resignation. In Peraza’s interpretation, neither Heraclitus nor the nymph comes across as a mere lamenting victim of unfaithful love, but rather as a philosophical being who consciously engages in a tortuous dance with fate, an anguishing, slow dance that is less chaconne but more passacaglia-inspired. The passacaglia pattern also comes from Spain; its name is a combination of pasar (walk) and calle (street) meaning a leisurely walk. Contrary to what its name indicates, here the passacaglia is no mere pleasurable stroll, as it frames musical laments.
Enthusiastic praise goes also to Michael Harrist who, throughout the concert, weaved in the Middle-Eastern sounding yayli tanbur instrument and the sympathetic-stringed basso d’amore to create a special atmosphere of mystical, extraordinary colors that made the longing of the lament theme even more stunningly heartrending.
After singing of such crushing sorrow, Peraza ended evening in an outburst of joy: Juan Arañés’s vivacious, life-affirming Chacona a la vida bona, which incorporates musical elements from the indigenous peoples conquered by the Spanish. Before launching into singing and dancing the Chacona, Peraza engaged the audience, teaching us to clap to the rhythms of the dance and sing the repeating “a la vida, vidita bona” (“here’s to life, to the good life”). Using castanets and other percussion instruments, the spirited mezzo-soprano and instrumentalists offered a fun, dynamic finale that uplifted spirits and enveloped the audience in that original irresistible dance allure of the chacona. Was it just me or were everyone’s steps sprightlier as they walked out of the concert?
Be it in dance, lament, meditation, transcendence, courtliness, or a merging of styles and elements, American Classical Orchestra’s The Chaconne Project is a one-of-a-kind revelatory musical and historical journey that enchants, inspires, and enlightens. A truly enriching and enthralling experience for all.
Featured photo: (from left): Chloe Feder, Thomas Crawford (Artistic Director), Karen Dekker, Guadalupe Peraza, Arnie Tanimoto, Michael Harrist, Adam Cockerham. Photo by Carolyn Swartz