It’s like a 17th century painting come to 21st century life. As people eat, drink and relax with friends in a Tacoma cafe, Anna Marsh brings out a cylindrical wooden instrument with a brass crook and only two keys. It’s a dulcian, forerunner to the bassoon — a Renaissance instrument that was popular as the bass line of an ensemble or even choir. Marsh, who grew up in Tacoma, returns again next week at the Salish Sea Early Music Festival to play a concert of Renaissance music Monday at Trinity Lutheran Church, playing the dulcian alongside lutenist John Lenti and Jeffrey Cohan on Renaissance flute.
“In general, the harmonies are a little simpler; there’s more tranquility” in Renaissance music, says Marsh, who performs and teaches around the United States and Europe on bassoons, recorders and shawms from the medieval to classical periods. “It’s fun to go back in time.”
The music on the Salish Sea program echoes all those qualities. Primarily pieces from Italy and Spain written for a soprano instrument (often violin, here played on the Renaissance transverse flute) and basso continuo (here realized with lute and dulcian), the works on the program epitomize the calm harmonic structure of the Renaissance, before the emotion and affect of the baroque came into vogue. It includes works by composers like Giovanni Cima, Dario Castello and Girolamo Frescobaldi (contemporaries of Monteverdi), and Bartolomeo de Selma y Salaverde, a Spanish friar who also happened to be a virtuoso bassoonist from a family of instrument makers. Using just a few keys and chordal patterns, the music winds its way from a single theme into fantastical elaborations while still retaining a sense of beauty and peace.
“Around 1600, (musicians) tried to make music more improvised and less measured,” explains Marsh. “I like that you’re able to change tempo, and be more free. … People tend to be less free with high baroque because it’s performed more frequently. It’s in the canon, like Bach. The ornaments are prescribed. I like that you have more options with Renaissance music — there are fewer parameters.”
A Stadium graduate who discovered early bassoons while an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College, Marsh fell in love with the college’s dulcian and went on to early-music studies at the Universities of Southern California and Indiana. Based on the East Coast, she’s in demand as an early winds specialist around the country and in Europe, touring frequently for groups like Seattle Baroque, Washington Bach Consort and Toronto’s Tafelmusik, as well as teaching workshops and festivals. But she manages to come home three or four times a year, especially when she plays with local groups like the Salish Sea Festival and Pacific Musicworks, with whom she’s performing “The Magic Flute” this weekend in Seattle.
“Luckily my mom keeps a base here and I can always come back home,” she says.