Articles and Reviews:

"bach circle" - Early Music America, Winter 2002-03

"bach circle" - The Georgia Straight, May 2002

"bach circle" - Flute Notes, May 2002

Music of the Rococo: May 13, 2000

Music of the Rococo: May 12, 2000

Monica Huggett and The Burney Ensemble: April 7, 2000

Music of the High Baroque: August 8, 1999

Preview: In Charles Burney's footsteps.

Review:

"bach circle"

By Tom Moore, Early Music America, Winter 2002-03

It's a measure of the depths to which the recording industry has fallen that such an excellent disc should be issued by the ensemble that recorded it, rather than by a label that could provide more extensive distribution (it is not available through any of the major online sites). The Burney Ensemble was founded by flutist Sonja Boon, a student of Wilbert Hazelzet and Rachel Brown, in 1998; this disc, recorded in July of 2001, is the ensemble's first. The various works from Bach, his family, and his students, should all be familiar to devotees of this repertoire, but rarely have they been so well recorded.

Leader Boon elicits a lovely, large, fluid, expressive tone from her De Winne (after Grenser) instrument; she has masterful control of every nuance that enlivens - rather than stifles as it sometimes can - this repertoire. Luchkow shows similar poise, if not such volupté, in his Bach sonata. They are fleetly accompanied by Mackie and Weeks, and the recording, live and present, captures every detail, with not a weak piece in the bunch. A very strong debut, most warmly recommended. (One niggling postscript: why omit the definite article in the title?)

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Review:

"bach circle"

By John Keillor, The Georgia Straight, Vancouver, May 23, 2002

This is a remarkably intimate recording, containing sonatas by baroque master Johann Sebastian Bach, some of his closest contemporaries, and arguably his most talented son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. Recorded last year at St. Mark's-Trinity Church by local sound engineer Don Harder, the soundscape is flawlessly immediate. And the Burney Ensemble's period-instrument performances on flute, violin, and continuo are fluidly interactive.

Bachcircle will delight casual listeners as well as satisfying the grumpiest flaw- finding audiophile. Some people may prefer a disc with more variety, but this collection seems to have a feel for Bach's professional scene. Composer Johann Gottlieb Goldberg's Trio Sonata in C major is not only a fine, pastoral piece, it also bears the mark of Bach's brand of arabesque counterpoint with playful reverence. (Goldberg was the keyboard Virtuoso who became the namesake for Bach’s seminal Goldberg Variations, BWV 988.) The other composer heard here, Johann Philipp Kirnberger, was a musical allrounder who used his influence as the curator of Princess Anna Amalia's music library to preserve Bach's legacy. He, Goldberg, and C.P.E. Bach all studied under Papa Bach at some point. And when his music is heard, its emotional acuity shines out among all the other compositions. It demonstrates a compassion both for the listener and the music.

Vancouver's own Burney Ensemble realizes the closeness and conviviality that strengthened these composers' artistic connections with tender intelligence. Listen to Bachcircle in the morning; your coffee will taste better, as will everything else.

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Review:

"bach circle"

By Chris Sklar, The Magic Flute's Newsletter, FluteNotes - May 2002

This long-awaited disc from local baroque ensemble The Burney Ensemble shows them off at their best. Playing on period instruments, this group has been delighting Vancouverites for several seasons now with their stylish interpretations of the music of Bach and his contemporaries. This disc includes music by J.S. himself, his son C.P.E., as well as Joseph Kirnberger and Johann Goldberg. The Ensemble, made up of baroque flute and violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord, makes its way around this music with complete ease and finesse proving that sometimes one doesn't need to go too far to discover world-class talent.

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Review:

Mood was relaxed elegance

By Deryk Barker, Times-Colonist, Victoria, May 15, 2000

Looking back from the vantage of a late 20th century viewpoint, it is easy and tempting to pigeonhole music into convenient, clearly-defined periods.

The title of Saturday's final Early Music of the Islands concert of the season, "Music of the Rococo", for instance, seems to brook no argument as to its import. Yet a little research shows that the term "Rococo" was first applied "post facto and pejoratively" to an elaborate style of French architecture. Its musical application is vague at best, but roughly speaking describes music which falls into the period (lasting, by my estimate, for about six weeks) between the late baroque and early classical.

On Saturday evening, Vancouver's Burney Ensemble took their audience on a brief tour of the period, with music by, among others, three of Bach's (many) sons.

While each composer had his or her own characteristics, the overall mood of the evening was undoubtedly one of relaxed elegance, which is as it should have been, for many references will tell you that "Rococo" is more or less synonymous with the French "galant" style.

The New Grove has 14 separate entries, in chronological order, under the name Bach: Johann Christian Bach, known as the "London Bach", is No. 12. He was youngest son of J. S., and the single most important influence on the young Mozart.
The Burneys gave us a quartet and a trio by J.C. - or, as we were informed his French publisher named him, Jean Chretien Bach - both charming, elegant, highly-polished works played with style and spirit.

The highlight of the first half of the evening was undoubtedly the Duetto by Emanuele Barbella, whose movements had delightfully dotty subtitles like "Exeunt all the devils; the two Spouses pay compliments to each other; The Wizard orders the military drill ". Remarkably, all of the directions were reflected in the music.

In the second half Elizabeth Liddle gave a thoughtful and searching account of Karl Friedrich Abel's Adagio for solo viola da gamba.

All four musicians, in various combinations, proved sensitive, stylish players. There was not a great deal of profundity on offer - the Abel Adagio apart, the Rococo style does not lend itself to profundity - but there was elegance, style, wit and even an almost puckish humour on occasion.

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Review:

Music of the Rococo

By Douglas Hughes, The Georgia Straight, May 18, 2000

When the ghost of Hildegard von Bingen came to haunt us more than a decade ago, the women of the world rejoiced. And rightly so. Here was a 12th-century abbess, mystic, poet, and dabbler in science and medicine who – of all things – dared to tread on male territory by cranking out some nifty tunes of advanced structural design. Operating as she did in a largely cloistered situation, however, she was probably little concerned about that.

Von Bingen's resurrection in our time provoked an academic investigation into her work, and also into the plight of those female composers who, throughout the history of western music, suffered ignominy at the hands of men. Not all of them, though, were so unfortunate. The middle of the 18th century, for example, saw the rise of Anna Bon di Venezia to the Prussian court of Frederick the Great, no mean musician himself.

Bon seems to have been quite precocious. Born into a cultured family, she started music lessons at the age of four, and before reaching 20 had turned out three published works, among them a charming three-movement Divertimento in G major, Op. 3 No. 1 with which the Burney Ensemble opened the second half of this thoroughly engaging concert.

As a composer, Bon put the serpentine complexities of such baroque conventions as polyphony and figured bass aside. Instead, she joined Franz Josef Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in exploring the ornamental excrescences of the Rococo style.

In fact, this entire event was devoted to Rococo composers, including those prolific sons of Johann Sebastian Bach - Johann Christian, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Johann Christoph Friedrich. Equal time was given to Emanuele Barbella, Carl Stamitz, and Carl Friedrich Abel, the latter as famous for his devotion to gin as for his complete mastery of the viola da gamba, even when deep in his cups.

As usual, the group - flutist Sonja Boon, violinist Paul Luchkow, violist Michelle Speller, and gambist Elizabeth Liddle - tossed all this stuff off with elegance and panache. They will return next fall in another series at St. Mark's - Trinity Church, where the acoustics seem to welcome the sound of small ensembles with particular felicity.

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Review:

Monica Huggett and The Burney Ensemble

By Douglas Hughes, The Georgia Straight, April 13, 2000

Those who claim to be in direct, if somewhat dubious, contact with the mind and soul of Johann Sebastian Bach all but fall to their knees in the presence of British violinist Monica Huggett. Her most ardent fans seem convinced that she is in line for canonization, and that she will one day ascend bodily into heaven to sit on the right hand of God (with Bach himself on the left, of course) with her 382 year old Amati fiddle tucked under her chin.

This strikes me as extremely odd, for there is nothing in Huggett's stage deportment to suggest saintliness or an overweening preciousness. Her once dark thatch of Medusan curls has turned silver, emphasizing her robust ruddiness. Indeed, she seems the sort of English matron with whom one could share a few laughs over a jolly spot of tea, or even a pint at a friendly neighbourhood pub. Not exactly a clip from a Coronation Street rerun, but something like that.

It is this very earthiness, I think, that in this concert informed her performance of the famous Ciaccona (Chaconne) from Bach's Solos Violin Partita in D minor, BWV 1004. As a party piece of sorts in the repertoires of most concert violinists, this work is open to many interpretations, all too many of them sprinkled with holy water. Huggett, on the other hand, leapt into it with vigour, strength, and a certain roughness of colour and character that brought Bach down from his perch in an isolated organ loft to mingle with the people. Different? You bet. In this case, however, vive la différence!

With the excellent-and-getting-better-all-the-time Burney Ensemble - flutist Sonja Boon, violinist Paul Luchkow, viola da gambist Elizabeth Liddle and harpsichordist Valerie Weeks, all on period instruments - Huggett swept breezily through the solo parts in the Trio Sonata in G minor, Op. 2, No. 5 by George Frederick Handel, and two works by his French contemporaries Michel Blavet and Michel Corrette.

Otherwise, the ensemble gave clean and precise performances of four-movement works by Johann Joachim Quantz and Georg Philipp Telemann, who is being touted by some academics as the equal of Bach, if not his superior.

Ah, well. I suppose those guys have to stir the baroque cauldron every so often just to keep it bubbling and themselves amused.

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Review:

The Burney Ensemble

By Douglas Hughes, The Georgia Straight, August 12, 1999

This final event in Early Music Vancouver's summer festival was titled Music of the High Baroque. The locution "high Baroque" — with the B as either a majuscule or a minuscule — surfaces repeatedly in long-winded disquisitions on the music, art, and decoration that flourished throughout Europe roughly between 1550 and 1750. Today, the term seems a bit snooty, if not comic, in that it suggests a loftiness to which only the cognoscenti can rise as they look down with contempt on a canaille they assume to be too dull-witted to comprehend the mysteries of any music other than the most banal pop trash.

Well, that's the way it was at one time. But things are changing. Now many people — both young and old — who once feared that early music was too highbrow for their uncomplicated tastes are being drawn by its simplicity. As one middle-aged woman I know said to me at the close of this concert, "You know, I'm not a particularly religious person. I mean. I never pray or anything like that. And I certainly don't know much about music, although I took piano and violin lessons for years. But when I was listening to those pieces by Bach and Telemann tonight, I didn't find them complicated. In fact, I found them soothing and peaceful at times, and at other times very playful and merry."

Soothing, peaceful, playful, merry. Those words and their synonyms weren't far from my mind as I listened to four members of the recently formed Burney Ensemble — named after the 18th-century English composer, musicologist, and writer Dr. Charles Burney — at the UBC Recital Hall in their first appearance under the EMV banner. Playing period instruments, flutist Sonja Boon, harpsichordist Valerie Weeks, violist da gamba Nan Mackie, and violinist Paul Luchkow covered a lot of ground in works by German composers, including two members of the Bach family — Johann Sebastian and his son Carl Philipp Emanuel — George Frederick Handel, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Dietrich Buxtehude.

With the exception of Telemann's Premier Quatuor (Quartet in D major) — which he apparently wrote for friends in Paris, hence its French title — all the works on the program were in three- or four-movement sonata form, that formula having reached a ripe stage of evolution in those days. Because so much of the baroque repertoire is similar in basic grammar and syntax, an entire program of this material can, in the wrong hands, lead its listeners to imagine that they are receiving the same messages over and over again, when in fact those messages are not quite the same, but only vaguely similar in harmonic structure or rhythmic pattern. But Boon, a flutist of superb accomplishments and seemingly limitless lung power, has the right hands for it. And so do her associates. Thus, there was no confusing an "Allegro" by Handel with one by Buxtehude, or mistaking an "Adagio" by Bach the son with one by Bach the father.

Because a great deal of baroque music is scored for small groups, and for instruments of low dynamic intensity, gaffes — when they occur — tend to stick out like sore thumbs, as a few of them did during the course of this concert. They were, however, so fleeting, and the players so quick to recover from them, that only ears and eyes of acute perception and swiftness would have caught them.

But no matter. From what I heard of the Burney Ensemble in this concert, I got the distinct impression that its players would never permit the pursuit of technical perfection to interfere with their search for style, grace, and authenticity in respect to the baroque repertoire. It's good to have them in town as part of the musical community. I hope they prosper here.

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Preview:

In Charles Burney's Footsteps

Vancouver's Burney Ensemble hopes to capture some of its namesake's spirit with its early-music interpretations.
By Douglas Hughes, The Georgia Straight, August 5, 1999

From 1995 to 1997, Manchester-born Sonja Boon studied the baroque flute in the Netherlands. Living in The Hague, she haunted the bookshops of the nation's capital in search of material relevant to her pursuits. It was in one such emporium that she discovered dog-eared editions of the journals of Dr. Charles Burney, works that would make an important impact on her life.

"Although Burney's name rang a distant bell, I hadn't read any of his books," Boon told me recently as I sat for coffee and conversation with her and her husband, trumpeter Búi Petersen. "The books I found were translations into Dutch. But as the daughter of Dutch parents, reading them was no barrier. Ultimately, I read everything I could lay my hands on by and about Burney. I laughed at his wit, even though I found some of his opinions outrageous. As a well-educated English musician who spent a lot of time in the company of many artistic and literary notables of his time, he could be a bit of a snob. But his stuff remains informative about the performance practices of his day and about the history of music. And it's entertaining to read because it's just a little…well, I guess what you would call gossipy, although not mean-spirited."

"I agree," said Petersen. A native of the self-governing community within the Kingdom of Denmark known as the Faroe Islands, he met and married Boon in The Hague when they were both studying at the city's Royal Conservatory of Music. "Along with Sonja, I also became fascinated with Burney, so we often read his works together and came across material that gave us a lot of ideas. I guess that is why we decided to form a musical group in Vancouver when we moved here in 1997."

Naturally enough, they decided to call the group the Burney Ensemble. Its core is made up of Boon, Petersen, baroque violinist Paul Luchkow (an Albertan who met the couple in The Netherlands, and who later settled in Vancouver), harpsichordist Valerie Weeks, and violist da gamba Elizabeth Liddle. Other players are added or subtracted depending on the repertoire for any given occasion.

Although they lacked the resources and the cash to bring wide attention to their local debut at West Point Grey's Aberthau Mansion in June 1998, the event drew about 80 people, who took as much delight in the readings from Burney's journals as they did in a program devoted to music of the 17th and 18th centuries. This encouraged Boon and Petersen to organize a four-concert series during the 1998-99 season under the generic title "Dr. Burney's Musical Journeys". As the series progressed, audiences grew. Now, they are going ahead with a 1999-2000 series scheduled to commence in September, with all concerts at St. Mark's-Trinity Church in Kitsilano.

It appears that in choosing Burney as a kind of mascot or guardian angel to look after their interests, Boon and Petersen set off on a promising venture. They couldn't have chosen more adroitly, for as a chronicler of English and European musical activities during the Enlightenment, Burney — perhaps more than any other musical figure of his time — was quite the standout. Although Frank Mercer, one of his 20th century biographers, dismisses him as "a composer of no importance whose works are correct and pleasant but little else", he also praises him as "the most learned musician in England, if not in all of Europe, during his lifetime".

Born to parents of modest means in 1726 in Shrewsbury - a rural town on the border of England and Wales - as the last of 20 children (with that brood, how could his family's means be anything but modest?), Burney showed early musical ability, and was sent off to Chester Free School to study the art. By the time he turned 18 he was eager to exchange the dust of his small town for the glitter of London. Once there, he lodged with his elder brother Richard, who had preceded him to the big city. He soon became a pupil of Thomas Arne, then regarded as one of the nation's foremost musicians. If his association with the somewhat indifferent Arne failed to add much of value to his musical acumen, it nevertheless gave him entrée to London society, in particular that segment of it peopled with many of the most celebrated musicians, actors, poets, writers philosophers, academics, and scientists of the day.

An articulate thinker, writer, linguist, and speaker himself, Burney passionately pursued knowledge by reading on everything from astronomy to zoology until his bedtime candles spluttered and died of their own accord. In other words, he was the supreme autodidact, determined to secure for himself the lifestyle and the contracts he had dreamed of when he was growing up in the sticks. Thus, he was able to hold his own in the company of such notables of the day as Samuel Johnson, George Frederick Handel, Colley Cibber, James Boswell and Dr. Johnson's friend Esther Thrale, who then ruled as London's undisputed arbiter of taste and culture.

In this whirl of ceaseless activity, Burney (as famous by then for his handsome visage and carriage as for wit and intelligence) had little trouble landing jobs as a church organist, choir director, and teacher, posts that provided him with a comfortable living. This led to his first marriage, to Esther Sleepe. The union produced eight children, six of whom survived. Of them, three achieved considerable fame: James as an admiral in the British navy, Charles as a Greek scholar, and Frances — known to history as Fanny — as a novelist, playwright, and diarist. After Esther's death, Burney took a second wife, by whom he fathered two more offspring, before he died in 1814 at the age of 88.

There is little doubt that Burney lived life in the fast lane, such as it was in his day. Apart from his social obligations, his family duties, and his musical engagements, he managed to find the time to churn out the more than 3 000 pages of his General History of Music, his almost daily opinion pieces, and his ceaseless correspondence with such figure as François-Marie Arouet (a.k.a. Voltaire) and Constanze Mozart, the impoverished widow of the great composer. How, when he was getting on in year, he made two long and presumably exhausting jaunts through Italy, France, and Germany in his quest for musical experiences and interviews with countless composers and performers still astonishes.

"Burney really was amazing," said Boon, finishing her coffee and checking her watch to make sure she wouldn't be late for her job at the Vancouver Public Library. " I never tire of reading his works, for they are full of hints on how best to handle the difficulties that crop up in some baroque scores. As inspiration, his works are indispensable for musicians working in any discipline. But his writing is never dry or dull, so as a record of his time, it could even be read with pleasure by those with a limited knowledge of music."

Although she is fully aware that the audience in Vancouver for early music is limited in size, Boon feels that it is enthusiastic enough to keep the ensemble afloat. "Vancouver is certainly growing," she said, " and I think its musical culture is growing along with it. Those of us involved in the group supplement our incomes by working part-time, by teaching, and by playing with other ensembles here and most recently in Portland, Oregon, where there is considerable interest in early music. In any case, we're prepared to stick with it until it becomes a regular part of the Vancouver early-music scene. The point is to enjoy what we're doing no matter what problems crop up. And we certainly do enjoy it."

Early-music buffs will have an opportunity to hear four members of the Burney Ensemble enjoying themselves in the closing concert of the Vancouver Early Music Festival 1999. No, there will be no music by Burney on the program. But the menu of trio sonatas from 18th century France and Germany scheduled for the occasion will include works that he undoubtedly knew, even if he held some of them in higher esteem than others.

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