Best Baroque in Town

On a recent drive through one of the many West Texas villages in this part of the country I was struck by the oddity of a message on the marquee outside a local watering hole.

“BEST BAROQUE IN TOWN”

An image flashed through my mind of four of five guys dressed in late 17th century garb toting their period instruments, wooden flutes, recorders and violins and such, in for an evening performance before a warm and appreciative crowd of rednecks.

The fact that the establishment boasted the “BEST BAROQUE IN TOWN” suggested to me that there were other ensembles playing in other greasy spoons dotted throughout the little burgh, sort of a “Battle of the Bands” for Baroque lovers. I could hear the patrons arguing in the street after each night’s performance, long necks in hand, “Our baroque ensemble can whip your baroque ensemble any day of the week and twice on Sundays.”

All of this flashed through my mind in the instant prior to my second glance which revealed that the sign actually said, “BEST BARBQUE IN TOWN.” That made more sense and I drove on contented that I was not losing my mind.

I’ve had Baroque on the brain for some months now as I’ve been playing several numbers by one of the period’s most well-known composers, George Philipp Teleman (1681-1767). I was introduced to Teleman many years ago when my bassoon teacher invited me to come and hear the recital for his Master of Music degree. Dad graciously drove me to the University Houston where I sat in rapt awe as my teacher took off the mask of musical simplicity he’d always worn with me and “threw down” on some hot classical stuff. “This next piece is George Philipp Teleman.” I remember it well because he gave me a cassette recording of the performance afterwards.

From that point forward I associated Teleman’s work with impossible difficulty. I had always admired my teacher and had heard legendary tales of his musical exploits during his high school years. I found out that night he had the stuff to back up all the talk. From that night forward he held a comfortable position in my arena of musical superstars. The guy was good, really good.

As some of you already know I’ve taken up the flute in the last year and have acquired a measure of proficiency that continues to surprise me and my listeners. “You play so well. How long have you been playing?”

“Just a year.”

“Really!? That’s amazing. You sound so good.”

I’d just completed a Teleman composition, so I knew I had achieved something important. It was a victory in the psychic wars of developing musical confidence. I certainly wasn’t anywhere near the mastery of my former bassoon teacher, but I was doing pretty well and had entered the elite realm of those who’d performed Teleman and lived to tell about it.

Not long ago I started work on another Teleman piece and took it to my flute teacher (Yes, I have a flute teacher!). Before digging into the guts of the thing and complaining about how hard it was she started talking about the Baroque style and the things composers were trying to convey during that period. Then she talked about Teleman’s contribution and the uniqueness of his pieces. Then she began a little discourse on the instrument flutists were playing in those days. “People were still playing wooden flutes then. They were beautiful instruments but there were not as many keys as there are today. Players had to learn a wide variety of fingerings to cover the holes in the instrument. It was probably a lot more difficult to play then.”

I was glad to have the flute that I have. It was hard enough to play all by itself.

I had no idea there was so much to consider when bringing a piece of music to performance level. For so long, even as a bassoonist, I was happy to be able to get through the piece without too many wrong notes. Now, I had to consider not just the music on the page, but the history of the piece, the unique “Baroque” style, the composer’s artistic bent, even the period of his career in which the piece was written. “Teleman went through a period when he was really popular and made lots of money, but this one was written after he had lost favor with the court and was living in poverty, etc., etc.”

“What does that mean for the way I play it?”

“Just play it like you’ve lost favor with the court and you’re playing on the street on a cold German afternoon with your open flute case on the sidewalk in front of you hoping people will toss in a few copper coins.”

“You mean, play with my guts and lots of emotion?”

“Yes, but not too much emotion. Remember, you’ve lost favor with the court for being too flamboyant in the past and you don’t want to upset anyone again.”

“Right, I’ll remember that, but let me just try to get the notes right, O.K.?”

After a recent concert during which I heard my flute teacher and a friend of hers “throw down” on some classical stuff I figured out what she was talking about. I said to her after the concert, “That was really brilliant (it was). It sounded like you’d fallen out of favor with the court and were playing for a crowd on the street hoping someone would toss in a few coins for your daily bread. Lot’s of emotion!”

I think she understood what I was talking about. Her friend just smiled and nodded and pretended she didn’t speak any English.

I keep practicing and I think I am getting better. I was playing this morning in the woods on a weekend camping trip. The kids are used to me doing that. I have literally played coast to coast in many of America’s fine campgrounds. This past summer during our Big Adventure I took my flute with me and tried to bring a little civility to the camping crowds we were so much a part of.

Sometimes people commented how much they enjoyed it, which was nice. I’m holding out for a sophisticated redneck who tells me, “You know, you play the best Baroque in town!”

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