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Music Notes: Basically Bach goes instrumental 

Basically Bach's founder and music director Daniel V. Robinson quit teaching music at a small college in Ohio and came home to Chicago in 1983. While deciding what to do with the rest of his life, he "joined a couple of music groups and kept musically active." He and Christie Enman, later Basically Bach's executive director, sang with several early-music groups in the city, and his wife Kate played violin. Then, he says, "We just decided that we thought we could do better on our own--and I was really eager to get back into conducting. We realized that what both I and the market were well suited for at that point was a Baroque music group based on historical principles." They started out small in 1984, doing mostly choral pieces, since singers were who they knew.

"Then," says Robinson, "the whole field of Baroque authentic-performance-practice performances just took off, and we found that the music demanded much more instrumental participation than we had imagined at first. That meant we were going to have to struggle to get the money to do that. We've moved kind of slowly in that sense, pacing our growth somewhat with our financial abilities."

The ensemble stuck to the idea of being a professional chorus, but the instruments became increasingly important. "The third year we jumped off a cliff and did the [Bach] B Minor Mass--and hired all kinds of instrumentalists. And that's where we really got going. We got to be a little more popular and got connected with a lot of the really good Baroque musicians around the country and some good local singers."

Now the ensemble will open its sixth season with an all-instrumental concert--its first. And the orchestra will continue to be a major component in the rest of the year's concerts. "We've become more instrumental, more authentic, more involved," says Robinson.

He is not bothered by the fact that the group's growth has been slower than, say, the other local early-music success story, the City Musick. "The first season we budgeted and spent about $10,000. I have no idea where that money came from, although a few people actually came to our concerts--we had about 50 subscribers. This year our budget is somewhere between $180,000 and $200,000. And although we're not through with our season subscription drive, we have over 600 subscribers, which is double last year. My understanding is that a great deal of City Musick money is foundation money and corporate grants. This is the opposite of us--we've tried to build our base on individual giving and earned revenue. You look at something like the Orchestra of Illinois, which was a great idea but was also largely supported by foundation grants. The foundation grants vanished, and they had no basis--and had not as yet discovered a mission that could sustain them. You wonder if the same phenomenon could happen here.

"Most financial experts will tell you that foundation money will last for about three years, at which point the foundations say, 'Well, we've done our part. You're on your own now, kids.' There are times when I wish we had that much money to throw around, but if we keep doing well, people can't help but take notice. We're nowhere near saturating our market; as more people hear this style of performance, more become attracted to it. The fact that there are two of us playing fairly well and regularly in town is of mutual benefit."

Robinson says that the two groups are very different in their approach to musical problems. He calls City Musick artistic director Elaine Scott Banks "very aggressive. And her Baroque music always reminds me of Rossini: fast, irregular, idiosyncratic, personal. I can never get away from its being her doing it." He says the same is true of Music of the Baroque's Thomas Wikman. "He forces the music in a very personal way, almost to the point of an attitude that says, 'I'm going to write my name in the music right here.' My own approach is much more--well, laid back is perhaps too California of a phrase. But I really try to stay out of the way of the players and the music. What you hear is, as much as I can imagine it, what would have been there originally."

Basically Bach opens its 1989-90 season this week with two familiar Baroque orchestral staples: Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and the Bach Suite for Orchestra no. 2. Nancy Wilson, the group's concertmaster, will perform the Vivaldi. "She's not only a wonderful violinist, but also a superb leader," says Robinson. "And the local players just adore her. It's meant a lot to the Chicago players by way of helping them to grow, because no other group is providing that kind of teaching leadership. Having her here three to four times a year is like each of them getting a week's worth of lessons."

Robinson sees the Bach suite as "an extremely difficult and wild piece." Yet he assumes the piece will be easier to play on Baroque instruments than on modern ones. He says he watched his wife struggle with the Bach sonatas and partitas until she took up the Baroque violin and bow--and then suddenly saw "60 to 70 percent of those difficulties vanish. Baroque music on its proper instruments is an endless series of exciting discoveries."

The two works can be heard Friday at 8 PM at the Cathedral of Saint James, 65 E. Huron; Saturday at 8 PM at the First Congregational Church of Evanston, 1445 Hinman in Evanston; and Sunday at 7:30 PM at the First United Church of Oak Park, 848 Lake St. in Oak Park. Call 334-2800 for further information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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