A Tenet translated to music performance
GREAT BARRINGTON -- Start with the name: Tenet.
It suggests tenet of faith. It suggests tenacious. And it's a palindrome. Now translate it to musical performance, and you have the early-music ensemble that is coming to the First Congregational Church on Saturday night for a program of "Bach and His Predecessors."
Sponsored by the Berkshire Bach Society, the 7 p.m. program features nine singers and instrumentalists from the New York-based group. They will precede works by Bach with what Tenet director Jolle Greenleaf describes as some of "an enormous wealth of music" by his forebears.
The predecessors' music, she adds, "all very much led to what he offered the world."
Tenet, which is making its Berkshire debut, is a loosely knit organization of up to 30 freelancers from around the Northeast. Originally an ensemble of eight voices, it expanded in both size and mission when Greenleaf took over as director in 2009. Now it focuses on long-term projects it presents on its own, such as an exploration of Monteverdi's music, but also does fixed programs for other presenters, such as the program here.
"Tenere," Greenleaf points out, is Latin for "to hold," and rather than disband when her predecessor stepped down, the former Tiffany Consort chose to hold on and become Tenet. A member since the founding in 2003, Greenleaf set out "to explore a lot of different repertoire, things that were small, things that were large."
Also, says Greenleaf, "I'm a big lover of palindromes" - her daughter's name is Hannah. Quirky typography in the group's website logo plays up the mirror effect.
The Great Barrington program opens with works by Buxtehude, Schütz and the little-known Georg Muffat and Samuel Capricornus, and culminates in Bach's motet "Lobet den Herrn" and Cantata No. 150, "Nach dir Herr." Five singers and four instrumentalists will take part.
Bach, Greenleaf said in a phone interview, wasn't working in a vacuum, but took many ideas from his predecessors and adapted them to his own use. (In a telling incident, the 20-year-old Bach walked 250 miles to listen to and learn from Buxtehude, a celebrated organist as well as composer.)
The program is intended to give a glimpse of this flow of ideas.
"It's just beautiful, fantastic music," Greenleaf said. "So we always find that it's really lovely for audiences to hear that there was so much magical, wonderful stuff happening before Bach did what he did -- and that he was taking some of what he did from many traditions that were happening around him."
Critics have nice things to say about the effects. Reviewing a performance of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers in The New Yorker last month, Alex Ross wrote: "(It) was religious music as a total work of art, with voices and instruments arrayed around the church, encircling the audience in a hypnotic web of sound."
Greenleaf, a soprano, came to early music as a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
"It just made perfect sense for me," she recalled. "It fit my voice. The music itself, I was really drawn to it. I've been doing this more than 20 years."
She is Tenet's overall director but enlists friends as guest directors for specific programs. Organist Avi Stein is director of the program here. She'll be one of the singers.
Like other early-music groups, Tenet skips over the classical and romantic periods but occasionally does contemporary pieces. It will perform Arvo Pärt's "Passio" (Passion According to St. John) in a contemporary-music series in Carnegie's Zankel Hall next season.
Modern composers like early-music singers' "straight," or light, sound quality, Greenleaf said. It lends clarity to their music.
The group is versatile in other ways, too. It will, for example, supply the five soloists for an upcoming performance of Bach's B minor Mass by a community chorus and orchestra.
There's a bit of word play in not just the group's name but also the title of the Monteverdi project. It's called the Green Mountain Project. Forget Vermont. The name Monteverdi translates as green mountain.
Other projects include a series of programs, with music by by Buxtehude, Couperin and others, for the Lenten services of Tenebrae, based on the book of Lamentations.
"We come up with projects that we really, really love and feel invested in, and then we build the project around the best people we can find to do that," Greenleaf said. Many musicians come back year after year.
Listeners shouldn't expect any formal demonstration of musical influences in the Bach program.
"The real point isn't to say what Bach took from other people," Greenleaf explained. "It's to say, look at what Bach had. And that's kind of creating a lovely picture of what was happening then."
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