Dusting off forgotten classics

Seicento Baroque Ensemble gives oft-overlooked works new life

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly



Boulder has a new group playing old music.


Seicento Baroque Ensemble gave its very first concert in November. An auditioned chamber choir, Seicento (the word means “17th century” in Italian) will present its second-ever concert program three times this weekend, Feb. 17-19: Friday in Boulder, Saturday in Cherry Hills Village and Sunday afternoon in Estes Park.

The program will feature the works of three Baroque composers with low name recognition but great historical connections: Heinrich Schüetz, an important predecessor of Bach and Handel in the German tradition; Heinrich Ignaz von Biber, a predecessor of Mozart in Salzburg; and Friedrich Kuhnau, the direct predecessor of J.S. Bach in Leipzig.

As its full name indicates, Seicento presents selections of the Baroque period in music, roughly 1600 to 1750. The group was founded by its director, Evanne Browne, a professional singer who studied Baroque performance practice at the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam. She and her family came to Boulder from the East Coast, where she had a very busy early-music career (including performances with the Washington Bach Consort), because they were seeking “someplace healthier,” she says. “It was a hard decision,” Browne acknowledges. “I did have a nice career there, and also in the Netherlands. But I have a husband and a son, and my husband had the luxury of bringing his job, so we moved here while he stayed employed.”

Once in Boulder, Browne landed a job as music director of the First United Methodist Church, where she has directed performances of several major choral works. But the turning point for her and Seicento came in 2010.

That year was the 400th anniversary of one of the great landmarks of the early-music repertoire, Claudio Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers. “I had been a soloist for the Vespers several times,” Browne says. “Nobody was doing it [in Colorado], and I needed to hear the Vespers in the 400th anniversary year.

“That was a huge turning point.

Boulder has many singers who are interested in doing unusual major works. So it’s been fun for me to bring in works that are not often done, and then in 2010 to say, ‘OK, you want to do Monteverdi Vespers? I think we can pull this off.’” The success of that performance led Browne to establish a standing choir dedicated to the performance of Baroque music. Today, Seicento is ensemble in residence at the First United Methodist Church.

Like the Monteverdi Vespers two years ago, the upcoming program started with music that would be new to Colorado audiences. The fall concert had featured early Italian Baroque and English composers, so Browne wanted to turn to another tradition.

“Looking at Germanic composers, the Biber Requiem is a piece I’ve always wanted to perform, “ she says. “And the Schütz Musikalisches Exequien is something that I’ve sung many times. I don’t know that it’s been done here, and it’s a fabulous piece of music. The text was in a collection to be engraved on a coffin. The whole thing is fascinating to me, and it’s a beautiful piece of music and perfect for Seicento.”

To those two pieces about death Browne added a sunnier cantata by Kuhnau that she says is “beyond pretty, it’s gorgeous.” Written for the same liturgical tradition as Bach’s cantatas, it is a predecessor to those better-known works.

To fill out the instrumental ensemble, Browne has brought in two experienced early-music performers: Baroque violinist Mimi Mitchell, who performs with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and other early-music ensembles; and Baroque cellist Rene Schiffer, principal cellist of the prominent ensemble Apollo’s Fire.

In addition to the choral works, Mitchell will lead the string players in two dances by Samuel Scheidt, another early-Baroque composer from the German tradition.

Looking to the future, Browne plans to expand the Seicento season to three concerts next year. She has been in touch with professional players of the sackbut and cornetto — two predecessors of modern brass instruments. “There’s so much fabulous brass music,” she says excitedly.

Clearly Browne is not going to run out of repertoire any time soon. Her enthusiasm is almost palpable as she adds, “There’s just so much music we’re not exploring.”

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ON THE BILL: Seicento Baroque Ensemble plays Friday, Feb. 17, at Grace Lutheran Church. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for students, $15 for seniors and $17 for general admission. 1001 13th St., Boulder, 720-301-7747. Visit seicentobaroque. org/Concerts.html for more information.