Baroque violinist Karen Clarke plays Handel and Marais their way

Some people apparently don’t know how to rest. Karen Clarke, one of the the Blair School of Music’s terrific violin professors, seems to be especially challenged in the taking-it-easy department.

clarke1After 27 years of teaching music at Florida State University, Clarke took a stab at retirement about a decade ago and moved to Tennessee with her husband, oboist George Riordan. But in 2007, Blair talked her into joining its faculty to teach Baroque violin. She’s been at it ever since.

Now, Clarke is planning to retire once again. She intends for this semester to be her last. And this time, she says she really means it. “We’re going to spend some time here getting our house ready,” she said during a recent interview. “And then in 3 or 4 years we’ll probably retire somewhere out West, perhaps in Oregon or New Mexico.”

The good news for Nashville’s early music fans is that Clarke will grace our stages for a while longer. On Monday, March 11, Clarke will give her final faculty recital at Blair. And then on Sunday, March 17, she’ll appear with Music City Baroque at First Presbyterian Church.

At both concerts, Clarke will be joined by her friend and longtime colleague, Brent Wissick, a distinguished professor of cello and viola de gamba at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “There’s some music that I’ve wanted to play for a long time,” says Clarke. “But I needed a viola da gamba player to do it with. “Fortunately, Brent agreed to make the trip.”

Clarke met Wissick about 20 years ago, when both received fellowships to attend a Beethoven Quartet Seminar at Harvard University. Since then, they’ve played in many of the same early-music ensembles, most notably the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra.

brent.jgpWissick was first attracted to the viola da gamba when he was a teenager. “At first, I just loved the viol’s quirky, geeky coolness,” says Wissick. “Later, when I heard the viol in the music of Bach and Telemann, it was a revelation, because I suddenly understood what that music was supposed to sound like.”

The viola da gamba had its origins in 15th century Spain and Italy. Like a cello, the viola da gamba is held between the legs (literally, “da gamba”) and is played with a bow. But don’t be fooled. Like a hyena, which looks like a dog but is more closely related to cats, the viola da gamba looks like a cello but is really a member of the guitar family. The viola da gamba has frets, like a guitar. Its sound, moreover, is lighter than the honey-toned cello.

Monday’s concert will feature the music of Marin Marias, an early 18th-century viol virtuoso and the leading French composer of music for the instrument.  The program will also include some wild viol music by Johann Schmelzer along with music by Dietrich Buxtehude and Arcangelo Corelli. Harpsichordist Kathleen McIntosh will assist.

Music City Baroque’s concert will be devoted entirely to the works of Handel. The program will include two Concerto Grossos along with ballet music from Alcina. The concert will also include a performance of the seldom heard secular cantata “Tra le fiamme” for soprano and Baroque ensemble. Soprano Terri Richter will be the soloist.

“Handel wrote that cantata when he was just 22, and there’s lots of innuendo in it,” says Wissick. “It’s definitely not the dignified Handel of the Messiah that we’re all used to.”


Violinist Karen Clarke, viola da gamba virtuoso Brent Wissick and harpsichordist Kathleen McIntosh perform music of Marais, Schmelzer, Buxtehude and Corelli at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 11 at Turner Recital Hall, 2400 Blakemore Ave. The performance is free. Wissick leads Music City Baroque in an all-Handel program at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 17 at First Presbyterian Church, 4815 Franklin Pike. That concert is also free.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.