Sometime in the mid-19th century, when composing and performing became distinct specialties, classical musicians largely abandoned the art of improvisation.

Earlier, performing composers like Bach, Mozart and Beet-hoven were lavishly praised for their improvising skills, and a number of Mozart’s piano concertos have no cadenzas precisely because Mozart extemporized them on the spot. But through most of the 20th century, classical players (with the notable exception of organists) allowed this skill to atrophy in favor of fidelity to the printed score, surrendering the joy of improvisation to blues, jazz and rock musicians.

With the growth of the early music movement, though, improvisation has been reconsidered. You can’t properly play Baroque music, after all, if you don’t understand ornamentation, and although ornamenting a line is just a baby step on the road to full-scale improvising, a growing number of musicians have been taking that journey. Among them are the six members of Ensalada, a Maine early music group formed in 2012. On Saturday evening at the St. Luke’s Cathedral Chapel in Portland, the ensemble offered an impressive display of its inventiveness and dexterity with a dozen works in a variety of styles as part of Portland Early Music’s Chapel Series.

The group’s players are familiar from other contexts. Lydia Forbes, the group’s violinist, and Myles Jordan, its cellist, are also members of the fine DaPonte String Quartet. Timothy Burris, who plays lute and theorbo, also directs the Portland Early Music Festival as well as the Collegium Musicum at Colby College. Virginia Flanagan, the harpist, and Alyson Ciechomski, the bassist, have resumes filled with orchestral and chamber music jobs, and Ciechomski also plays jazz. And Eric LaPerna, the group’s percussionist, directs a Middle Eastern music ensemble at Bowdoin College, and teaches both there and at Bates College.

Much of the music was from the Baroque era, with the musicians using the scores as frameworks from which they wandered, generally within the era’s style. But there were also solo pieces based on established forms, credited to the performers.

Those forms were not always from the Western classical canon: LaPerna opened the program with “Taqsim” – a percussion improvisation (played on the riqq, a Middle Eastern tambourine) based on two intricate Arabic rhythmic modes, each in a different meter. Forbes joined La Perna after a few moments with a violin solo based on “Si verias,” a Sephardic song with a Middle Eastern melodic lilt. Straightforward jazz joined the proceedings as well, in Ciechomski’s solo offering, a supple, flowing double bass improvisation built on John Clayton’s “Blues to Bach.”

Jordan, on the other hand, based his solo improvisation on the chromatic tetrachord, a descending bass pattern used in Baroque times to symbolize tragedy. It most famously appears as the repeating pattern beneath “Dido’s Lament,” the wrenching final aria from Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.” Elsewhere, it was less easy to tell where the score ended and where the improvisation began, not least because the scores themselves – a Pavane and Variations by Antonio de Cabezón, given a lovely reading by Flanagan, and a Passacaglia by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsperger, rendered with gentle deftness by Burris – are essentially crystallized improvisations over a repeating bass line. Still, Flanagan’s voicings and octave placements seemed to be her own, and in another Kapsberger piece, the “Seconda Arpeggiata,” for which the score is simply one chord for each measure, the group’s adornments were clearer, with Burris providing the graceful arpeggiation and Forbes adding a tuneful if conservatively improvised violin melody.

The ensemble was at its best and most freewheeling in its version of Arcangelo Corelli’s “La Folia.” Usually heard in a version for solo violin with harpsichord accompaniment, the group reorchestrated the piece for its combination of timbres, with individual players, duos and trios within the ensemble taking individual variations and frequently adding new turns of their own. Interesting as the other offerings were, a full program of arrangements like this would make for a killer evening.

In the next installment in Portland Early Music’s Chapel Series, on March 5 at St. Luke’s Cathedral Chapel, Music’s Quill (Timothy Burris, lutenist, and Timothy Neill Johnson, tenor), with guest cellist Raffael Scheck, will perform George Handford’s 1609 collection “Ayres to be sunge to the Lute and Base Vyole.”

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn


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