High Fasch-in': Fasch and Friends at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, Washington Early Music Festival, June 19, 2012

For me, a complete Washington Early Music Festival experience includes a midweek concert at which I don’t know what to expect. The concert by Fasch and Friends on Tuesday at the All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church fit that bill: Johann Friederich Fasch is a fairly obscure German Baroque composer, and potentially his friends would be even more obscure. Plus the program had a unifying and alliterative theme, “The Many Moods of the Minor Mode,” in which the Fasch-ists (too much?) would refute the modern idea that minor key => sad by exploring the different characters of the minor mode in the Baroque. Sold!

I sent Fasch a friend request when I got home. He has not yet responded.

On Tuesday, the super Friends did best championing Fasch and (as hoped) two little-known contemporaries. The group’s namesake was represented by one of his quartet sonatas, which as you might guess had one more melodic part than a trio sonata. In this case, two oboes, played by Sarah Weiner and guest Meg Owens, and William Sherfey’s bassoon joined the continuo, composed of Thomas MacCracken on harpsichord  and Yayoi Barrack on viola da gamba. In this D minor quartet, Fasch played around with the distribution of the melodic material among the three soloists; sometimes the bassoon would dialogue with the oboes playing in unison, and sometimes the oboes would chatter between themselves as the bassoon provided support. With Sherfey sitting across from Weiner and Owens, the dialogic effect came across nicely, and the melodies sounded fresh as a consequence.

A trio in G minor by Georg Philip Telemann for two recorders (Weiner and Sherfey, in another of their many roles on Tuesday) and continuo received another affectionate, stylish performance. But when Weiner took up the oboe for another Telemann trio (this one in A minor) that also featured Sherfey’s recorder, Weiner had trouble compassing the more virtuosic flourishes, starting slightly late and then rushing through to keep up. Barrack had trouble getting her melodies lined up correctly and intoned properly in her solo number, which came in a reconstruction of a trio in E minor by some guy named Johann Sebastian Bach, though as a continuo player she provided strong support in the rest of the concert.

Passing through all the common Baroque minor keys, one could draw few broad conclusions about their various characters; as MacCracken noted, a single minor key can sound very different even within a work. But the various ways a minor key can sound — melancholy, energetic, stately, tranquil — certainly came across, and the minor mode never became monotonous. The diversity of instrumentation helped, and the most notable diversity came in a trio for three recorders and nothin’ else by the Baroque composer and theorist Johann Mattheson. (For those of us who enjoy attempting to pronounce German names in an exaggerated fashion, this concert was pure gold.) Here Weiner, Sherfey, and MacCracken teamed up without the support of basso continuo and kept the music aloft with sparkling interplay, especially in a Gigue finale that induced my foot to tap.

All Souls Church is a handsome space but not the best concert venue; a bird chirped from somewhere in the rafters for the entire evening (though the winds of the Fascians were louder, thank goodness), and the HVAC system apparently would have drowned out the performers, meaning we did not have air conditioning on Tuesday night, which made the church as stifling as you would imagine. Still, a quartet by Johann Gottlieb Janitsch, featuring the most interesting of all the instrumental combinations on Tuesday’s program — flute, oboe, viola, and basso continuo — made it worthwhile to sweat it out until the end of the concert. (The WEMF program makes a very handy fan.)

To play it, Sherfey switched to the harpsichord, MacCracken manned the baroque flute, guest Leslie Nero handled the viola, and Weiner stayed fast on the oboe. After a concertful of sturdy harpsichording, MacCracken made the flute dance nimbly with the other instruments, Nero tossed off her lines with her usual élan, Weiner helped the unusual texture come together, and Sherfey and Barrack anchored the whole thing. I can’t say I had ever heard the name Johann Gottlieb Janitsch before Fasch and Friends introduced his music to me, but I’ll remember this performance — just what you’re looking for when you don’t know what to expect.

I AM NOT MATURE

This is what I thought of when I first read the group name “Fasch and Friends.”

Also, when MacCracken announced that he was grateful for Sherfey agreeing to play the concert even though it was his birthday, I was hoping that the other instrumentalists would play “Happy Birthday” and MacCracken would get us all to sing. Either that or 50’s “In Da Club.” Maybe Sherfey was sad because he apparently does not have a decent bio page on the Internet that I can link to in this review.

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