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NEW WIGS ON OLD MUSIC: Local Baroque ensemble explores Versailles’ fresh excesses

At least once a year, some enterprising Kansas Citian comes up with an idea for an arts organization that has us slapping our foreheads saying, Why didn’t we think of that? Our Town has certainly seen no shortage of visiting early-music groups (thanks to the efforts of several well-established arts presenters), and smaller groups have come and gone, but it wasn’t until 2016 that Joplin-born Trilla Ray-Carter, a superb cellist who moved here from Los Angeles in the ’90s, established the first home-grown non profit group (in recent times) designed specifically to perform music from the 16th through the 18th centuries.

Kansas City Baroque Consortium, which includes Trilla and her violinist husband, Monty (as well as other musicians as needed), is a summer series at this time, although early successes suggest that it could someday expand. On August 17th the Consortium presents the final program of its second season, The Sun King’s Court, devoted to lavish music from the 72-year reign of Louis XIV. This follows two programs earlier in the summer, one devoted to music and Shakespeare “in the original pronunciation” (Shakespeare Goes HIP-OP) and the other focusing on the Classical-period fortepiano (Outside the Baroque Box).

Kansas City Baroque Consortium / Photo by Eric Williams

Ensembles that specialize in “early music” these days don’t just program the music, they use instruments that sound dramatically different from their modern counterparts. Once you’ve strung a violin or cello with sheep-gut (instead of steel) or have picked up a Baroque-shaped bow and explored its potential, you immediately discover that music of Bach, Handel, Rameau or even Mozart can come to life in unexpected ways.

At first this music sounds strange to ears accustomed to hearing it played in styles heavily influenced by the Romantic period (with slower tempos, thicker string sound and heavy-handed articulation). But once you get used to it, Trilla said, it’s hard to go back. “I got to the point where, if a recording came on the radio of Baroque music that was being played in a modern interpretation, I had to turn it off. … There was something so dramatic that was missingand I wasn’t exactly sure what it was because I hadn’t yet studied early music.”

It’s not just that the sound is more flexible and vibrant, she added. It’s that the lightness makes possible a sort of transparency that is more difficult to achieve with the fatter, more aggressive sounds of 19th- and 20th-century instruments. You can hear all the inner voices of a complex Baroque orchestral score, and with astonishing clarity. Moreover the “freedom from the score” allows for more embellishment of the melodic lines, giving more of a sense of what 17th- and 18th-century audiences actually heard.

Trilla Ray-Carter / Photo courtesy of KC Baroque Consortium

“There is something special happening in these historical performances,” Trilla said of her early contact with the style. “And the more I heard it, the more I thought, Wow … there’s something about the way that we’re taught Baroque music in conservatories that puts a lid on that tremendous sense of joy, that improvisatory feeling, as if it were being created at that moment.”

One of Trilla’s “Aha!” experiences came when first listening to Bach’s Cello Suites played by Phoebe Carrai, a leading Baroque cellist. “I was overwhelmed with this desire to learn this,” said Trilla, who had trained at Lawrence University and UMKC Conservatory and was already an accomplished cellist by this time.

After studying with Phoebe at Boston’s Longy School of Music, she returned to Kansas City “fired up. … I said, this is Baroque music outside the box, unlike anything I’ve ever heard. … I started preaching the gospel of early music to my colleagues and I was shocked to find how many other people had this latent desire that they simply hadn’t acted on.”

Trilla said upon returning to Kansas City she was inspired by the great early-music groups being brought to town by the Friends of Chamber Music, the Harriman-Jewell Series, and others. “Being up-close and really seeing and observing, and then hearing this very special sound, it just started to sink in.”

Gradually she “found others who were also looking for this experience. Some of them had already quite a bit of knowledge. …. But for me it was literally like being thrown into the deep end of the pool.” By that point, “I had drunk the Kool-Aid, and my friends had drunk the Kool-Aid,” she said with a laugh. Initially the group operated under the auspices of the Jewell Early Music Summer Festival, which was formed as a summer series with the help of the now internationally known countertenor Jay Carter (no relation), who like Trilla was teaching as an adjunct at William Jewell College.

Jeffrey Noonan and Trilla Ray-Carter / Photo courtesy KC Baroque Consortium

But in 2012 they broke free of Jewell, and Trilla learned how to form her own non-profit: By 2016 KCBC had its 501(c)(3) status, and by 2017 it was performing its first season. “As the Jewell Festival sort of wound down, I realized that we can’t continue to sustain our activity without funding,” she said.

Local audiences are perhaps accustomed to the earthier music of Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi, yet the ornate works of the French Baroque are of equal importance, Trilla said, and have often been neglected in favor of German and Italian styles. “Everything was over the top” in French music of Louis XIV’s court, she said. “There could not be enough gilding, enough curlicues, enough curls in your wig.” Versailles inspired a “bubbling up” of a unique sort of beauty, she added. “A bit overwrought, but certainly there was no such thing as too much. The more the better.”

—By Paul Horsley

Cover photo of Trilla and Monty Carter courtesy of KC Baroque Consortium. 

The Sun King’s Court takes place on August 17th at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. For tickets see www.kcbaroque.org. To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor; send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook or Twitter.

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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