Vol. LXI, No. 17
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Photo by Linda Arntzenius
After a two-year hiatus, the Dryden Ensemble returns to the concert hall with two performances this weekend, in Princeton and Doylestown. The group plays Baroque music on period instruments and was founded by Hopewell resident Jane McKinley in 1994, after she received an M.F.A. in historical musicology from Princeton University and studied Baroque oboe in Vienna with Jürg Schaeftlein, a pioneer of period oboe performance. Before taking a leave of absence, the Dryden Ensemble had developed a steadfast following in the Princeton area. Here, Ms. McKinley, talks about music, poetry, and working as a musician from the home she shares with her husband Gooitzen van der Wal, a native of The Netherlands and an electrical engineer at Sarnoff. Besides their children Simon (19) in his second year at Lehigh University, and Elsa (13) an eighth grader at Timberlane Middle School, the couple shares space with their pug Puck and cats Diablo, Skiggle, and Buddha.
Just before Christmas, I wrote to all of our supporters and they are really happy that the Dryden Ensemble is back. A lot of audience members have become friends and I missed that contact when we were not performing. For these upcoming concerts, I’ll be playing a boxwood oboe that’s a reproduction of an instrument from 1700’s London and an oboe da caccia. Bach is one of the few composers who wrote for the oboe da caccia and the program will feature vocal works scored for both of these instruments as well as for strings and harpsichord.
All of the musicians in the group enjoy period instruments because of the insights they yield into the music we love to play: works by Bach, Handel, Buxtehude, Corelli, Vivaldi, Monteverdi, et al. The Baroque oboe is very responsive. It’s hard to explain but the articulation of phrases is easier on a period instrument. Modern oboes are made from harder woods such as ebony so as to accommodate more keys. The more keys, the more stress on the instrument. As music became more chromatic, more and more keys were added. Mozart wrote for up to a high F but on the baroque oboe the highest note is a high D, two octaves and a step above middle C.
In Baroque music, the keyboard or bassoon or doublebass play the melodic baseline or basso continuo together and the harpsichordist or organist adds embellishments with his or her right hand. It really is an art and harpsichordist Webb Wiggins is a master. Every performance is a high wire act, different each time with different improvisations within the framework of the chords. In slow movements it was expected that the performer would improvise the embellishments.
We’ll be performing arias from Handel’s operas Amadigi and Giulio Cesare and arias from Bach’s sacred cantatas, including the moving Ich wünschte mir den Tod, which is reminiscent of the Agnus dei from the B Minor Mass. The second half will feature the string players and we’ll close with arias from an early opera by Handel that premiered in Venice when he was only twenty-four. Agrippina established his reputation in the world of Italian opera.
We often work with guest performers and the music was chosen with soprano Julianne Baird in mind. Julianne is a wonderful singer who lives in Haddonfield and teaches voice at Rutgers. She’s also a scholar with a newly published book about the music of Benjamin Franklin. While recording a CD is still on the ensemble’s ‘to-do’ list, Julianne one of the world’s ten most recorded classical artists with more than 125 recordings to her credit and a new DVD of works by Buxtehude.
When the Dryden Ensemble began in 1994, it was a reorganization of an earlier Baroque group that I’d founded in 1988, the Baroque Soloists of New Jersey. We chose the reference to Dryden because it was the first name that we all agreed upon. We didn’t want to be tied to a specific composer but rather to the Baroque period and since Purcell and Handel used a lot of Dryden texts, it seemed natural to choose Dryden, the author of the famous song in praise music’s patron, Saint Cecilia.
We all get along really well and enjoy playing together. That’s what really prompted the Dryden Ensemble, where everyone has input in musical decisions. That and a love of performing Bach, Handel, 17th century music, and French music.
The largest project we ever took on was four years ago at Richardson Auditorium when we performed Bach’s St. John Passion. Normally we perform without a conductor but because of the many quick transitions involved in that work we asked violinist and conductor Scott Metcalfe to lead us.
We used to perform a lot at Richardson but it’s now becoming too expensive for us so we are looking to perform in the new Princeton Performing Arts Center at the high school next season.
The ensemble’s musicians vary a little according to the repertoire but there is a core of five or six. In addition to the original members, harpsichordist Webb Wiggins and cellist Lisa Terry, current members are violinists Rachel Evans and Vita Wallace, violist Andrea Andros, and Jay Elfenbein, who plays the violone.
I met Webb in 1985 when he had just returned from three years of study in Holland. Bach arias brought Lisa and I together over 20 years ago. We do a series of concerts in Princeton and in Doylestown each year and several other concerts and benefit programs besides. Now that my children are older the number of concerts may increase.
The Dryden Ensemble stopped performing as a group mainly because Webb got a job as professor of harpsichord at Oberlin College and wasn’t able to commit to a concert schedule. Besides that, after more than a decade of administration, I was ready for a break and wanted more time to devote to writing. While the Dryden Ensemble was on “sabbatical,” I continued to perform as a freelance musician with various groups in Washington, New York City, and Philadelphia.
A great deal of my time is spent making reeds. I start with a piece of cane from Southern France, which is soaked and shaped. It looks like a piece of split bamboo that I score and bend and shape until it conforms to very precise measurements to within a tenth of a millimeter. Most oboeists make several at once and save the best for concerts. They take a few days to break in and can be unpredictable at first. There’s always an element or risk in performing with period instruments in public, a bit of a high-wire act without a net.
I grew up in Iowa and I’ve played oboe since I was nine. I started playing the Baroque oboe in 1983. I met my husband when I was a graduate student and he was in an international program for engineers at Princeton University. I was living in the graduate school and he could hear me practicing. He plays the flute and so he knocked on my door and suggested that we play duets. Each day, I practice for a couple of hours but when we are rehearsing for a performance that increases to about six or seven hours.
I’ve always loved Bach and Handel. I love the polyphonic texture, all the voices going on at once, and now that I’m writing poetry I find a big connection between Baroque music and poetry. The Baroque composers aim was to express a particular emotion in a movement of music by means of keys, each of which has a different affect, melody and harmony. Writing poetry is very much like that, taking a single feeling and trying to express it in words. I started writing poetry about four years ago, but I think I’ve always been a poet at heart.
It’s been interesting as a musician to move into the world of poetry, meeting a whole new set of people. Looking back on my life, I see signs were pointing me toward poetry. As well as the Dryden connection, there were college courses that I took simply because they were all that was left by the time I got round to making a choice. For some reason they often seemed to be in poetry. Now I’m trying to work out the relationship between music and poetry.
The Dryden Ensemble will perform on Saturday, April 28, at 8 p.m. in the Princeton Theological Seminary’s Miller Chapel. A second concert is scheduled for Sunday, April 29, at 3 p.m. in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, East Oakland Avenue and Pine Street, in Doylestown, Pa. For more information, call (609) 466-8541, or e-mail DrydenEns@aol.com.
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