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Biber Repass

At the Music Garden, Harbourfront

In Toronto on Thursday

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Classical music as we know it only came into its own when people stopped moving or talking while listening to music derived from dancing and the performance of ritual. The repressed movement behind the sounds is still evident in terms such as andante (which indicates a walking pace) and passacaglia, which comes from the Spanish for strolling in the street.

So what happens when that kind of music is reanimated with dance, and thrown back into the street, or at least very near one? Thursday's show at the Music Garden was all about finding out.

The Music Garden is a leafy retreat sandwiched between Queen's Quay and a waterfront walking trail. Violinist Linda Melsted, dancer Julia Sasso and bass clarinetist Lori Freedman convened there in front of an attentive crowd to expose a passacaglia by Heinrich Biber to the wind, the passersby (including a very curious Great Dane) and to Sasso's and Freedman's choreographed and improvised responses.

The passacaglia as a form seems to have originated as a guitar vamp between verses of a song, probably as support for a few dance steps. By the time Biber got hold of it in the late 17th century, it had become a way of showing off one's ability to spin melodic variations over a repetitive bass line.

We know from the difficulty of his music that Biber was an ace violinist, and not afraid to show it. His passacaglia is a real virtuoso piece, which I was almost sorry not to hear first as a completely solo item. Melsted is a fluent and sensitive violinist, and the piece rippled easily from under her fingers. But as Sasso started to dance, the novelty of seeing someone move to such a rigorously centripetal piece made it hard to notice everything Melsted was up to.

Sasso, beginning from a seated position on a rock, laid out her vocabulary in the opening minutes, in a series of clear, poised movements that flowed together into phrases or seemed to throw queries back at the music. She followed her own rhythm, not necessarily becoming more animated as the music flew into speedy elaborations. I got the feeling she was engaging Biber's work not as a finished thing, but as something permeable and alive.

Periodically, she would walk back to her rock, and each time that walking gained resonance from everything that had happened. It was an explicit way of acting out the genre's origins, of responding to Biber's ground bass, and of gracefully reintegrating his rarified music into the kinetic patterns of ordinary life.

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Freedman's solo improvisation began with a deep guttural growl that also seemed to stem from the passacaglia's bass obsession, and that fit pretty well with the throb of a passing helicopter. Her spiky, gestural sounds chipped and scraped at the edge of pitches, often slithering away as if she were playing an unkeyed instrument, like a trombone or violin. Her performance was an engrossing mixture of the sharp and the smooth; even when she attacked the sound hard, it often had a smudgy, evasive appearance.

She and Sasso closed the show with a long joint improv, built partially from their responses to the Biber, but also quite evidently from what they got from each other. Freedman threw out little mottoes from different spots around the stepped audience area (perhaps recalling Biber's music-in-the-round experiments in Salzburg), before playing a more continuous music that included a virtuoso section for mouthpiece alone. Sasso reprised part of her Biber choreography en bloc, and at one point made a witty leap over the low cord separating her space from the audience, as if to show that no formal barrier was going to get in her way.

All in all, it was an intriguing experiment that stopped a number of passersby in their tracks. As we know from the experience of the past few centuries, classical music has a way of doing that.

The Toronto Music Garden's weekly free performances, curated by music writer Tamara Bernstein, continue Thursdays at 7 and Sundays at 4 through Sept. 16.

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