The period-instrument ensemble Sonata à Quattro was formed in 2017, as the Ensemble-In-Residence for Bach Around The Clock, the annual community music festival in Madison, WI.
The ensemble’s name refers to baroque chamber music scored for three melody lines plus continuo. The more-familiar trio sonata format, which enjoyed great popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries, employs a continuo with only two melody instruments, typically treble instruments like violins or flutes. In contrast, a sonata à quattro includes a middle voice, frequently a viola, in addition to the two treble instruments and continuo; this scoring has a fuller, richer sonority, and can be seen as a precursor to the string quartet.
The initial mission of SAQ was to accompany singers and other soloists who needed backup musicians to perform movements from Concertos, and Cantatas and other choral works, at the annual festival. But SAQ quickly expanded its scope to embark on a career independent of BATC.
Its voyage as an independent ensemble launched on March 4, 2018 with an appearance on the celebrated ‘Sunday Afternoon Live’ concert series at the Chazen Museum in Madison. Coverage of this performance resulted in BATC and SAQ being featured on the website of Early Music America, in the first of a series of articles highlighting EMA’s Early Music Month.
SAQ accompanied two singers on Cantatas at BATC 2018, and also performed the Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052, with Mark Brampton Smith at the keyboard. These performances were streamed live and viewed by hundreds of people, to great acclaim.
SAQ appeared next at a ‘Bach’s Birthday Bash’ fundraiser on March 21, 2018, a benefit event for the Madison Early Music Festival. SAQ players accompanied MEMF Co-Founders Paul and Cheryl Rowe, and soprano Chelsie Propst, in movements from several Cantatas, and accompanied the crowd in Renaissance drinking songs as they toasted J.S. Bach on his 333rd birthday.
The summer of 2018 saw the début of SAQ’s first full-length recitals. The July program sprang from the MEMF 2018 theme, ‘Journey to Lübeck,’ which centered on the famous music collection of the choir library at St. Mary’s Church in that city. The collection contains mostly liturgical vocal works, but the composers represented in the catalogue also wrote wonderful Canzonas, Dance Suites, Sinfonias and Sonatas for purely instrumental forces. SAQ had a wonderful time exploring this little-known repertoire, and sharing it with audiences in Madison and Milwaukee.
SAQ opened its inaugural concert season in November 2018 with a program titled ‘The Viola Uprising.’ Featuring works scored for one, two, three, and even four violas, this program demonstrated how 17th- and 18th-century Italian and German chamber music composers experimented with darker colors and increased lines of counterpoint. Hearing works by composers as obscure as Valentin Haussmann, or as well-known as Telemann and Bach, SAQ’s audiences experienced how the underdog of the violin family made its way into the sun.
SAQ served again as Ensemble-In-Residence at the BATC festival on March 2nd, 2019, and performed on the Chazen concert series the next day with soprano Kristin Knutson. In April we closed out the season with Haydn’s ‘The Seven Last Words of Christ,’ performing in Waukesha and Madison.
The ’19-’20 season opened in November with ‘A Dark & Stormy Night,’ a program of turbulent pieces by Vivaldi, Quantz, Barrière, and Telemann, closing with the brooding Cantata 209 Non sa che sia dolore by J.S. Bach. Another performance at the Chazen Museum on March 1, 2020, was SAQ’s final appearance before the pandemic closed everything down.
The ’20-’21 season saw performances of three different programs on the ‘Just Bach’ monthly concert series at Luther Memorial Church in Madison. The church’s concert series pivoted nimbly to the online format, videorecording all concerts and making them publicly available on the Just Bach YouTube channel.
In April 2021, four SAQ players performed a program of two quartets and two duos, on a concert series at the United Methodist Church in Whitefish Bay, WI. In an exciting development, the recording of that livestreamed concert also serves as SAQ’s program for the Boston Early Music Festival 2021 Fringe Concert series! That program, Musical Meditation & Merriment, premiered on June 17, 2021, and SAQ was thrilled to share its artistry with a national and international audience.