Ruckus is a shapeshifting, collaborative Baroque band with a visceral and playful approach to early music. ARCADIAN VISIONS features Ruckus with soloists Emi Ferguson and Rachell Ellen Wong in joyful dialogue with the rustic pastoral traditions of 18th-century London and New England. Featuring trio sonatas by George Frideric Handel and Thomas Arne, country dances from Igntius Sancho, instrumental hymns from William Billings and Daniel Read, and a new work from Celeste Oram.
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“The ensemble played with lithe tempos and lean textures, beautifully balancing cool refinement and intense expressivity.”
— The New York Times
Emi Ferguson, flute
Rachel Ellen-Wong, violin
Clay Zeller-Townson, bassoon and taille
Elliot Figg, harpsichord
Coleman Itzkoff, cello
Douglas Balliett, bass
Stephen Stubbs, guitar
Paul Holmes Morton, baroque guitar and banjo
George Frideric Handel: Trio in B minor, op. 2 #1b: Largo; Trio in G, op. 5 #4; “Piangeró la sorte mia” (arr.); Trio in G, op. 5 #2
Celeste Oram: A Tuning Tune; Attuning Tune
Ignatius Sancho: Selections from Twelve Country Dances for the Year 1779
Traditional: Garden Hymn
Williams Billings: The Rose of Sharon; Cobham
Thomas Arne: Trio Sonata in G Major, op. 3
Jeremiah Ingalls: Lovely Vine
Daniel Read: Sherburne
Arcadia: in Greek lore, Arcadia was an ancient land made inaccessible by mountains, a valley in which nature was unspoiled, and the people untainted by modernity. It is classic nostalgia for a pure land and time. How to portray this in art? In Italy, the shepherds were nobility in disguise: Arcadia was make-believe that the rich put on to profess their unspoken desire to each other. In England… the people of Arcadia were sheep herds. They were crass, spoke in rough dialect, oftentimes learning a social moral along the way. Today we’ve got a slew of 18th-century folk-dance infused music for you from London to Boston and New Haven, and the contemporary voice of Celeste Oram.
Ignatius Sancho was a remarkable member of 18th-century London and is one of the first Black musicians to have published their compositions. He was likely born on a slave ship en route from Africa to the Caribbean in 1729, and was brought to England when he was two years old. In Greenwich, England, he was given to three young girls, who decided to give the child the surname of Sancho (after the Cervantes character). Ignatius’ luck began to change upon meeting the Duke of Montagu, who fostered Ignatius’ education and became his leading advocate. Upon the Duke’s death, Ignatius escaped his enslavement and was supported by the Duchess of Montagu. Upon her passing, Ignatius received a modest inheritance which allowed him to support himself and pursue his dream of becoming an actor. Following a brief acting career, he opened a grocery and oil supply business in Westminster, where he worked until his death. Ignatius was most known in the 18th century through his letters, which were published posthumously. The existence of these letters, once published in 1782, helped the British abolitionist movement gain momentum: Ignatius’ writing on slavery was barbed and heartfelt. They also reveal a brilliant mind, a generous spirit, and a vibrant social life — full of music, friendship, and dancing.
Ignatius’ musical output is largely dances: minuets, country dances, cotillions, etc. One can imagine the social gatherings at his store, and at his houses of elite acquaintances, where dances long into the night included his newest material. Ignatius also published A New Collection of Songs, for voice and basso continuo, including settings of Shakespeare and contemporary poets.
His 12 Country Dances for the Year 1779 set for the harpsichord are dedicated to “Miss North,” whom scholars generally conclude must be one of the three daughters of Lord Frederick North, Prime Minister of England from 1770 – 1782. Sancho would have come into contact with this family through his second family of patronage, the Brudenells. This is a set of functional rustic country dances, complete with instructions for dancers alongside each score. They are danced today in English Country Dance circles. While many of Ignatius’ compositions are distinctly gallant, the 12 Country Dances are spare — with a direct, earthbound style. The melodies are earworms, the rhythms propulsive, and the set order very considered. The harmonic and metric structure of the collection makes a case for the collection to be played in order, attaca between many movements, taking the dancers on a journey brimming with upbeat joy against more moderate and relaxed numbers.
The titles of Ignatius’ dances in the 12 Country Dances seem to be a mix of characters familiar to the dedicatee: these are friends, acquaintances, favorite desserts, vacation places. However, the final dance was most definitely for Ignatius himself: “Mungos Delight,” a remarkable dance, outside of the norm of the rest of collection both in melodic style (extreme leaps), and with a mixed major/minor mode. “Mungo” likely references a character from the play The Padlock by Issac Bickerstaffe (1769), a part Ignatius could have performed during his acting career. There’s a dark bite to this dance, and as the “last word” of this collection, it makes one wonder what the composer really thought of the elite social circles he was supplicating himself in.
The two other voices from 18th-century England represented on this program would surely have been known to Ignatius Sancho. George Frederick Handel loomed large over all English concert music of the 18th century, as the preferred composer of George II. Thomas Augustine Arne was in many ways Handel’s heir to the British theatrical world: his published songs were some of the most enduring in the English-speaking world. Arne’s Seven Sonatas for Two Violins and a Bass were written in 1757, at the height of his success. His G Major trio from this set is highly embellished, perhaps even floofy, but with a richness of harmony that recalls earlier French composers such as Couperin.
Handel’s Op. 5 Trio Sonatas were written in 1738, probably after constant nagging from his friends (and publisher) to publish more instrumental chamber music. Handel was known for showing off at the keyboard and arias from his operas and oratorios, but the only trios that had been published up until then was a bootlegged set cobbled together by a publisher from his early days in Italy. The Op. 5 collection shows Handel, decades into his time in England, at the full height of his compositional ability, creating brilliant works in the uniquely British pastoral manner. These are more dance sets than abstract sonatas: they are full of musettes, gavottes, minuetts, and the like. We’ve also included a flute ‘aria’ from the Op. 2 collection and an arrangement of his classic aria “Piangeró la sorte mia” from Gulio Cesare, because we love it.
The New England School of composition from the late 18th century was known for taking English folk tunes and fleshing them out into three and four-part hymns. Here we have works from William Billings (MA), Daniel Read (CT) and Jeremiah Ingalls (VT), all at the forefront of this tradition. Each of them worked in many professions — Billings was a tanner; Read a comb-maker; Ingalls a farmer and tavern-keeper. While instruments were not commonly used in 18th-century churches, some New England parishes had a small ‘gallery orchestra’ used for beefing up the choir sound.
The following program note is from Celeste Oram:
A Tuning Tune/Attuning Tune was written especially for Ruckus, to the intriguing brief that the piece(s) would function both as preludes to a baroque program, and as opportunities for the ensemble to tune their instruments (something a baroque ensemble spends great time and care on). These tunes are based on a short sing-songy text I composed, reflecting on some of the moral and metaphysical ideas that have long been attached to musical intonation and the act of “playing in tune.” In particular, some phrases allude to language in William Walker’s Southern Harmony, an important hymnal in the American Shapenote repertory (which Ruckus is also engaged with).
In their capacity as “preludes,” these tunes are (I think) a kind of “saying grace;” these days I hope never to take for granted the immense joy and good fortune of being able to gather safely with friends to make music.
Heigh ho, hosanna, oh how great it is
that we are here
to hear a tune sounding feelingly
from ear to ear,
the heretofore weary for to cheer!
So may we keep a tune truthfully,
and keep attuning to that sweeter union
that will keep us truthful tunefully.
And should the tune most truthful-feeling
be not, in truth, in tune
but thrum with incommensurable strains—
Then may we come to hear the tunefulness of beating strings,
and come to know the many-tempered truth of things,
with the slow growing of our ears from year to year.
— Clay Zeller-Townson
The ensemble debuted in Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo in a production directed by Christopher Alden featuring Anthony Roth Costanzo, Ambur Braid, and Davóne Tines at National Sawdust. The band’s playing earned widespread critical acclaim: “achingly delicate one moment, incisive and punchy the next” (New York Times); “superb” (Opera News).
Based in New York City, Ruckus’ core is a continuo group, the baroque equivalent of a jazz rhythm section: guitars, keyboards, cello, bassoon, and bass. Other members include soloists of the violin, ﬂute, and oboe. The ensemble aims to fuse the early-music movement’s questing, creative spirit with the grit, groove, and jangle of American roots music, creating a unique sound of “rough-edged intensity” (New Yorker). The group’s members are among the most creative and virtuosic performers in North American early music.
Ruckus’ debut album, Fly the Coop, a collaboration with ﬂutist Emi Ferguson, was Billboard’s #2 classical album upon its release. Performances of Fly the Coop have been described as “a ﬁzzing, daring display of personality and imagination” (The New York Times). The Boston Musical Intelligencer describes the group as taking continuo playing to “not simply a new level, but a revelatory new dimension of dynamism altogether… an eruption of pure, pulsing hoedown joy.”
The ensemble made its Ojai Festival debut in 2022, performing a wide range of music: from Bach, to the improvisational scores of Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis, to a recital featuring Anthony Roth Costanzo, and an original opera by bassist Doug Balliett. Of their performances, San Francisco Classical Voice described Ruckus as “the world’s only period-instrument rock band.”
With Holy Manna, a program including arrangements of early American hymns from the shape-note tradition, Ruckus has begun a multi-project exploration of histories of American music. Other upcoming projects include a co-commission of a large-scale work by pioneering artist and NEA Jazz Master Roscoe Mitchell as part of a Bach & Bird Festival alongside the Immanuel Wilkins Quartet, produced by The Metropolis Ensemble.
To learn more about Ruckus, please visit their website (ruckusearlymusic.org).
Emi Ferguson can be heard live in concerts and festivals with groups including the Handel and Haydn Society, American Modern Opera Company, the New York New Music Ensemble, and the Manhattan Chamber Players. Her recordings celebrate her fascination with reinvigorating music and instruments of the past for the present. Her debut album, Amour Cruel, an indie-pop song cycle inspired by the music of the 17th-century French court, was released by Arezzo Music in September 2017, spending four weeks on the classical, classical crossover, and world music Billboard charts. Her 2019 album, Fly the Coop: Bach Sonatas and Preludes, a collaboration with continuo band Ruckus, debuted at #1 on the iTunes classical charts and #2 on the Billboard classical charts, and was called “blindingly impressive … a fizzing, daring display of personality and imagination” by The New York Times.
In addition to her solo recordings, Ferguson has also been featured on recordings for New Focus Records, Old Focus Records, Canteloupe Music, National Sawdust Tracks, Brontosaurus Records, Coro, and MSR Classics. A passionate chamber musician of works new and old, she has been a featured performer at the Marlboro, Lucerne, Ojai, Lake Champlain, Bach Virtuosi, and June in Buffalo festivals and has premiered works by many of today’s leading composers, working most recently with composers Roscoe Mitchell, Emily Koh, Michael Hersch, Gabriela Ortiz, and Georgina Derbez. Born in Japan and raised in London and Boston, she now resides in New York City.
To learn more about Emi Ferguson, please visit her website (emiferguson.com).
Recipient of a prestigious 2020 Avery Fisher Career Grant and Grand Prize winner of the inaugural Lillian and Maurice Barbash J.S. Bach Competition, violinist Rachell Ellen Wong is a rising star on both the historical performance and modern violin stages. She has performed in numerous countries spanning five continents. Her growing reputation as one of the top historical performers of her generation has resulted in appearances with renowned ensembles such as the Academy of Ancient Music, American Bach Soloists, Jupiter Ensemble (led by lutenist Thomas Dunford), Bach Collegium Japan, Les Arts Florissants, and others. She serves as concertmaster of Seattle Baroque Orchestra.
Highlights of Wong’s 2022–23 season include performances with the Auburn Symphony (WA), the Richmond Symphony (IN), and recitals for UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances, Edinburgh Music Festival, and the Washington Bach Consort in DC. Notable past concerts include performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Orquesta Sinfonica in Costa Rica, Bottesini’s Gran Duo Concertante with the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Panama, and recitals with world-renowned keyboardists Anton Nel, Byron Schenkman, and Alexander Weimann. Wong also regularly performs as Artist-in-Residence with the Heifetz International Music Institute and is also an American Fellow of The English Concert.
Originally from Seattle, Washington, Wong holds a Masters of Music degree in Historical Performance from The Juilliard School where she was a recipient of a Kovner Fellowship and a Benzaquen Career Advancement Grant. She performs on a baroque violin from the school of Joachim Tielke ca. 1700, and a violin made in 1953 by Carlo de March.
To learn more about Rachell Ellen Wong, please visit her website (www.rachellwong.com).
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This concert was made possible, in part, thanks to the generous support of The Maximilian E. and Marion O. Hoffman Foundation.