Gaylord, Minn., has not hitherto been known as a center of excellence in Baroque music, but that may be about to change.
The family of harpsichordist and conductor Michael Thomas Asmus has an agricultural business there, and when he’s not working for it he is busy with his other passion — researching the highways and byways of 16th- and 17th-century classical music.
“Today I was working on the farm from 7:30 till 4:30,” he says. “But I commute every other week to Stony Brook University in New York for my doctorate in musical arts. I kind of have the best of both worlds right now.”
On Friday evening Asmus will make the much shorter trip from his Gaylord home to nearby Winthrop, where his new group La Grande Bande will perform the opening concert of its debut season.
It’s a program with a difference — all French, with music by relatively well-known composers François Couperin and Marin Marais mixed in with pieces by the less familiar Jacquet de la Guerre and Jean-François Dandrieu.
“The French style just oozes elegance and satisfaction in listening,” he says. “Virtually all of the music on the program is dance-based, and really tuneful.”
Asmus’ love affair with French Baroque dates back to 2010, when he was sitting in an undergraduate music class at Gustavus Adolphus College and clicked on a piece by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
“To this day I remember listening to that Magnificat,” he says. “The tonal color, the French pronunciation of Latin, it was amazing. I just needed to get more and more of that; I kind of got addicted.”
La Grande Bande originated when Asmus was still a student at Gustavus, and the ensemble performed at his senior recital.
But the idea of rooting it in the Gaylord area, about 70 miles southwest of Minneapolis, only really took shape in May, when Asmus organized an educational project on Baroque music in the Sibley East Middle and High Schools where he was educated.
“It worked out really well, and we wanted to continue on the same path,” he says. “And so the next day I started writing out the ideas for our first season.”
La Grande Bande plays instruments of the Baroque period. That means gut strings on violins, not modern steel, and different ways of using the bow to make the strings resonate.
For Asmus, these are not academic differences. “Playing with period instruments opens up a completely different sonic world,” he says.
Oboes, trumpets, horns and stringed instruments all sound different from their modern counterparts, he adds, because they are built and set up differently. “They’re more enjoyable, because the instrumental colors come to life.”
But although the technicalities of playing in the Baroque style can seem nerdish, Asmus bridles at the suggestion that the music itself is in any way elitist or difficult to listen to.
“I had people come up to me after the East Sibley concert was over, saying I’ve always loved the harpsichord or I loved that Handel aria you did,” he says.
“There’s a hunger out there, not necessarily for Baroque music only, but for really high-quality musical performance of anything, really.”
Asmus is equally dismissive of the argument that Baroque music played on period instruments is something of a niche area, unlikely to find an appreciative audience outside major metro areas.
“My experience so far is that there is a real cultural desire in rural areas of Minnesota for the kind of thing that I am doing with La Grande Bande,” he says. “Not least because there is much less happening here culturally than in the Twin Cities. And I’m hoping we can make more people feel OK with wanting to come to something like this.”
To spread the message, Asmus is aiming to do more than just put on conventional concerts and recitals.
Master classes will be offered in schools. An outreach concert at a local assisted-living facility is planned. And a “casual concert” in Arlington will throw the traditional rules of concert dress and etiquette out the window.
“I’m particularly excited about the open rehearsals we will be doing,” Asmus comments. “They help to create a real atmosphere of dialogue between ensemble members and members of the community.”
For Friday’s concert at First Lutheran Church in Winthrop, Asmus will be joined by Baroque violinists Elizabeth York and Lindsey Bordner, and viola da gamba player Maryne Mossey.
Four concerts later this season will feature music by Bach, Handel and Telemann, and choral music by Charpentier.
Grants from the Prairie Lakes Regional Arts Council and the Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation in Rochester have enabled Asmus to keep ticket prices low — $5 to $7 — “to invite people in and encourage them to come,” as he puts it.
And although a note is yet to be sounded in the 2019-20 season, Asmus is already hatching plans for La Grande Bande’s future in the Gaylord area.
“We’re starting in Baroque repertoire, because that’s where I am right now. But in five to 10 years’ time I would love to be able to do a Beethoven symphony.
“I’m hoping that this is the first season of many.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.