This weekend, the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra will celebrate its “Sweet 16” anniversary with a pair of concerts, in Atlanta on Saturday and in Roswell on Sunday. ABO director Julie Andrijeski will lead a concert composed mostly of Baroque classics from the group’s very first season, but which will also feature the premiere of a new work written for the occasion by one of the orchestra’s members, Martha Bishop.
Bishop is a longtime Atlanta musician who plays a handful of different modern and period bass string instruments: the violoncello, viola da gamba and basse de violon. In addition to ABO, she performs with New Trinity Baroque, the Westminster String Quartet and Atlanta Camerata.
As a composer, Bishop frequently writes for historical Baroque period instruments. She was commissioned by the Viola da Gamba Society of America to write music for their 50th anniversary convention in 2012, where a massed ensemble of 300 musicians came together to perform the premiere. Her music has also been recorded by German viola da gamba virtuoso Hille Perl.
ArtsATL spoke with Bishop by phone about “Jubal,” her new work for Atlanta Baroque Orchestra.
ArtsATL: How did this new composition, “Jubal,” come about?
Martha Bishop: Julie Andrijeski emailed me back in the summer to ask if I would write a piece for this anniversary. I was thrilled but also terrified, because the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra is a very good group of sophisticated musicians. But since I know most of them, I could tailor-make this piece to fit their capabilities.
Julie and I agreed right away that it would be a jubilant, exuberant kind of piece — a five-minute piece, so not very long. She didn’t give me any other guidelines than that, so I decided to bring the Baroque Orchestra a bit out of its comfort zone and ask it to do things that it normally doesn’t do. For example, there’s no strict adherence to one bass line in the continuo [part]. The continuo players — two cellos, one bass, and one harpsichord — are sometimes all independent from each other.
ArtsATL: Though de facto a “modern” piece, because “Jubal” is for 17th-century and early 18th-century period instruments, to what extent is it informed by Baroque elements of style?
Bishop: In Baroque rhetoric, certain intervals [of pitch] have certain “meanings.” Some were to invoke happiness, or sadness, and some even madness. I tried to use a bit of that in the first melody [which follows] a fanfare. It certainly uses modern harmonies and modern rhythms — oh, a little bit of minimalism, ostinato, things like that. It’s mostly just an upbeat piece.
ArtsATL: What’s it like to write for Baroque instruments versus modern ones?
Bishop: Baroque instruments don’t have as great a range as the modern instruments do. [They are] more restricted to the keys [they play in], their dynamics. The woodwinds are especially strong in certain areas and weak in others, and not necessarily the same as their modern counterparts. I had to keep that in mind.
ArtsATL: How about the string instruments?
Bishop: They usually don’t do things like pizzicato in Baroque, but I call for them to do that and also some tremolo, which was not used as an ornament, it was more like an “excitement” device. Generally, they will not use vibrato and most of their long tones are going to swell in the middle and be tapered on the ends, what’s called messa di voce. That’s just what Baroque players do when they see music on the page. If you want them to do differently you have to write in dynamics. Slurs are not quite as common in Baroque string music and certainly not as long because the bows are shorter.
ArtsATL: How much of your own music is written for Baroque period instruments versus modern ones?
Bishop: I write a lot of vocal music, but [of the] instrumental music, maybe only 15 to 20 percent is for modern instruments. I’m trying to get into that more, though it seems I have this niche with early instruments.