In keeping with their previous “unwrapped” seasons, the Kings Place Baroque Unwrapped festival, which will run throughout 2016, explores beyond the boundaries of our popular notions of what the term “Baroque music” means. Thirty or forty years ago, “Baroque” meant Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Purcell, the Brandenburgs, Four Seasons, Messiah and whilst all these great composers are well represented in the series – particularly Bach, with a themed weekend dedicated to his music, put together by Martin Feinstein – there’s plenty of new music to be discovered too as Kings Place dives into the vast expansion in Baroque repertoire that’s been unearthed in recent years, including new discoveries by female composers such as the remarkable Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and the prolific 17th century Italian composer and nun, Isabella Leonarda.

Baroque Unwrapped
Baroque Unwrapped
I talked to Peter Millican, CEO of Kings Place, to find out more about Baroque Unwrapped, and he began by talking about the driving force behind the series:

“There’s always a danger that Baroque music gets wrongly dismissed as tame, predictable, decorative, harmonically familiar and rhythmically regular. In Baroque Unwrapped, we’re going back to the original meaning of ‘Baroque’ – a large, outlandish, irregular pearl, which inspired fantasy and creativity in jewellers and goldsmiths.

“The late 17th and early 18th centuries were a time of seismic change, particularly in Europe, but across the globe too. There was a huge increase in travel, a great cultural exchange, and music was increasingly cosmopolitan: even secluded in Germany, Bach was inspired by Vivaldi, Handel was bringing Italian operatic ideas to England, Soler and Scarlatti were injecting Spanish fire into Italianate keyboard works, Couperin took on Italian style into his French music. As far away as Bolivia, whole new bodies of liturgical choral works were being created in the Jesuit tradition. It was a fascinating time of burgeoning creativity, and that’s what we want to unleash, both among the period specialist musicians and those, like O/Modernt, who will mix Metallica and Muse with Vivaldi.”

Baroque performance style has evolved almost beyond recognition over the last few decades. The period instrument, historically informed movement re-injected new life and vigour into the Baroque classics, but there was always the danger that the Baroque would become confined to the museum case. Instead, there’s a new freedom and confidence about Baroque music these days, which means that performers and audiences are quite comfortable with the idea of stretching the improvisatory elements of Baroque music. Like jazz or blues, Baroque music can function as a rigid framework on which all sorts of decorations can then be hung, and these parallels come out in Baroque Unwrapped as Peter Millican explained:

“The notion of a musical score as absolutely fixed in print down to the last ornament is really a post-Romantic concept. In late 17th and early 18th centuries, there was a more fluid relationship between the composer and the performer, with the composer often performing his own music, or virtuosi invited to elaborate on the essential score before them. In this period we have those wonderful ground basses, which can operate like twelve-bar blues, and the shorthand ‘figured’ basso continuo parts which are wide open to individual interpretation. It’s a small step to invite contemporary improvising musicians in to spark off Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (Camerata Alma Viva) or for violinist Hugo Ticciati to find the same propulsive, kinetic energy of Vivaldi’s La follia variations in Metallica’s Orion, or, Camerata Geneva to find a kinship between Balkan folk rhythms from Turkey and Macedonia and dance-inflected Baroque works.”

Peter Millican © Kings Place
Peter Millican
© Kings Place
Music textbooks define the Baroque as beginning with Monteverdi’s Orfeo and lasting until around about J.S. Bach’s death in 1750 and whilst these sorts of fixed boundaries are useful tools for introducing music history, the truth is always much more complicated than that. Kings Place may be unwrapping the Baroque, but they’re taking care not to throw away the packaging, and so Fretwork is playing the consort music that permeates Purcell’s writing and Emma Kirkby sings the lute songs of Dowland and Lawes, and there are concerts that illuminate the influence of the Baroque on composers such as Mozart, Haydn and Mendelssohn. Peter Millican talked about how the rich fusion of French and Italian music that occurred in the later years of Louis XIV’s reign was particularly influential, and this cross-fertilisation, termed “les gouts réunis” by Couperin, is the focus of another themed weekend, one “of excessively good taste” under the leadership of Eamonn Dougan, which delves into what Peter Millican described as “the intoxicating” works of the later French Baroque.

The 17th and 18th centuries were a time of great scientific discovery and the new spirit of enlightenment found its way into music as musicians explored the science underlying tuning and harmony in ways perhaps not seen again until the 20th century. One concert that caught my eye in the Baroque Unwrapped festival examines this interplay of music and physics, and I asked Peter Millican to tell me more about it:

“Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Treatise on Harmony of 1722 was a ground-breaking study of the ‘natural’ harmonic series, and the way objects resonated – a truly Enlightenment project in which he created a theory of harmony derived from scientific observations, a decisive break from the Greek theories of the harmony of the spheres. Trio Aporia, who specialize in playing contemporary repertoire on period instruments, are going to be exploring this in a typically creative way, interleaving works by Rameau with new compositions which pay tribute to him and his ideas, using electronics and extended techniques.”

Kings Place © Nick White
Kings Place
© Nick White
I was also intrigued by the pasticcio event on 6 May, so I asked Peter Millican to explain a bit more about what pasticcio is, and what would be performed:

“Long before We Will Rock You, Mamma Mia or Jersey Boys, the idea of linking famous arias, often by a host of different composers, with a narrative-of-convenience was adopted throughout Europe, often to ensure your star singer would be able to deliver the arias they wanted to sing – and the public wanted to hear. The ‘pasticcio’ (or ‘pie’) was the result, and we’re delighted to be working with conductor Julian Perkins in association with the British Library, to create a brand new pasticcio for 2016 inspired by the adventures of Casanova.”

The very idea of public concerts that is so familiar to us today is itself a Baroque invention, as formal music was taken out of the church and the court to reach the general public in Italian opera theatres, German coffee houses and, eventually to commercial concerts in London which became a magnet for visiting virtuosi, and Peter Millican finished by explaining the how space at Kings Place can be used to reflect how Baroque music evolved in a variety of performance contexts . The music in Baroque Unwrapped will range from that written for a royal or aristocratic court, a church or cathedral, to that composed for small groups of friends in private rooms. Hall One at Kings Place is ideal for the most intimate chamber concerts, yet we know from experience a work like Bach’s Mass in B minor can resound magnificently in the same space, which can be adapted acoustically for larger forces.


This article was sponsored by Kings Place.