Going Baroque

by Carol DeFrank

IN five short but exciting cultural years, the Bach Ensemble of Naples has become an integral part of the arts scene in Southwest Florida.

There are many ways to observe a fifth anniversary, but few match the way the Ensemble celebrated their milestone. Twenty-three members of the group, along with family and friends, packed their bags and sailed to England. They performed at Bath Abbey, St. Paul’s Actors’ Church in London and on the Queen Mary 2. “It was the first time that the ship had a full house for a classical concert while on the high seas,” said Vic Silvestri, founder, president and main benefactor of the group.

Silvestri formed the Ensemble in 2002 to honor Loretta Walker and Paul Moylan, friends and godparents to his son. They were loyal supporters of classical music and helped him host the Bach Aria Group while teaching at Potsdam State College in New York. Inherited funds from their estate made it possible to create the Ensemble. “I knew there was a base of patrons and benefactors for this kind of music in Lee and Collier County because the Naples Philharmonic has been performing classic chamber concerts for 20 years,” said Silvestri, a tenor in the group.

He gave up singing with the Philharmonic, as well as his adjunct professorship at Florida Gulf State University, to devote all of his time and energy to the Ensemble. “The first couple of years, I felt I had to do it all. But now there’s a working board of directors, an advisory council and Dr. Ronald Doiron, our music director and conductor, who has been with us since 2003,” says Silvestri. Under Doiron’s leadership not only has the quality of the singing been enhanced, but the overall organization has been upgraded. Doiron, who has a strong background in liturgical music and choral singing, was recently recognized by the Collier County United Arts Council as one of four “Star in the Arts.”

The mission of the Ensemble is to become specialized in the performance style of the period and to offer public concerts featuring the works of Bach and other Baroque contemporaries such as Handel, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Telemann and Charpentier.

Their mission is to offer free workshops and lectures as a public education program. Specific topics include the works of Bach and Handel and ‘How to Listen to Baroque Music’. Each workshop includes special master lectures as well as choral singing and instrumental demonstrations. They’re held at schools, libraries and churches in Collier and Lee Counties.

Part of the education process is to offer internships to high school and college students who have an interest in singing or accompanying classical music. There’s also an internship available in arts management.

The educational aspect doesn’t stop with workshops, it continues at concert. In the prelude of each concert Doiron discusses the works chosen, their importance to the Baroque period as well as noteworthy features the audience should listen for during the performance. Detailed notes are also provided in concert programs.

The inaugural concert featured 20 singers, 11 of whom are still part of the group of 40 auditioned vocalists. “Some of our singers auditioned because they have friends in the group; others loved our concerts and wanted to a part of it. We are giving singers opportunities that aren’t available in big groups such as the Phil or Barbara B Mann,” says Doiron.

The Baroque period provides something foundational and fundamental to the current culture. The listener of today’s pop music may not be aware of it but Baroque music is responsible for the way the base line progresses, providing the foundation for what is called harmonic structure and the melding of these structures.

The Baroque choral style is a hallmark of this era, which lasted from about 1600-1750. It differs from the smooth, romantic legato style. Its bouncier, livelier notes don’t always connect. It’s complex with much more ornamentation. The customary long phrases are interrupted. Baroque music has a constant rhythm, and composers developed the idea of structures within a work, like a concerto with three movements. New instruments were introduced during this period, particularly string instruments like the lute and the harpsichord.

Doiron emphasizes that most of choral music is sacred and difficult to sing because the composers wrote for voices like they wrote for instruments. In sacred music, the contrasts of solo voices, chorus and orchestra and individual instruments were highly developed. “It’s a challenge but not without reward. It’s mind expanding and comes from the heart and the head, not from the gut.”

The Ensemble presented one of the best-known Baroque works, George Frederic Handel’s ‘Messiah’, in its entirety, a first for Southwest Florida. Another performance of the complete ‘Messiah’, as well as Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ and Handel’s ‘Dixit Dominus’, is scheduled for March 16 on Marco Island.

In 2004, the Troubadours, a vocal group of 8-12 current members of the Ensemble was formed to help raise money. This group can be hired for special events to perform popular musical works from composers such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern as well as holiday music, Broadway classics and light operas.
With their newly accredited 501c3 status, the Ensemble hopes to secure an artistic and financial base. “Artistically, we are embracing deeper challenges in the Baroque repertoire and financially we are building a core account of contributions for an Endowment Fund of $250,000,” says Silvestri. “A new public relations committee has been formed to help make our programs profitable. Ticket sales are starting to cover the cost of the concerts which includes venues, artistic director, accompanist, soloists and musicians. Our choral group is all volunteers.”

Other goals of Silvestri and Doiron are to form a Bach Society and expand the Ensemble to 60 singers in order to perform larger works that requires hours of stamina.

“Our oldest singer is 76 years old and still taking voice lessons; our youngest is a high school student. Four of five of our interns went on to major in music. We are fulfilling our mission; feeding the future of our culture,” Doiron said. •

from the January-February 2008 issue

The Bach Ensemble of Naples will perform the complete 'Messiah' as well as Mozart's Requiem' and Handel's 'Dixit Dominus' on March 16 on Marco Island.

Triangle Pose
Courtesy Health & Harmony Center