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 Cantatas, Concertos, and choral works at the festival. But SAQ quickly expanded its scope to embark on a career independent of BATC.
Its initial launch was astonishingly successful, with an appearance on March 4, 2018, on the coveted Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen concert series on the UW-Madison campus. Coverage of this performance resulted in BATC and SAQ being featured on the website of Early Music America, as the first in a series of articles in connection with EMA’s Early Music Month.
SAQ accompanied two singers on Cantatas at BATC 2018, and also performed the Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor, with Marc 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 at Essen Haus restaurant on March 21, 2018, a benefit event for the Madison Early Music Festival. SAQ players accompanied Paul and Cheryl Rowe and 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 launched it 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.
Looking ahead: SAQ will again serve as Ensemble-In-Residence at Bach Around The Clock 2019, scheduled for March 2nd, and will perform on the Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen concert series the next day, March 3rd. There will be a program of Haydn in April, and a ‘SAQ and Friends’ program in June; further information will be announced as it becomes available.