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D.C. Artist Profile: Joseph Gascho and the Early Music Revival

Musical genres are better understood as complex groups of subcategories rather than as giant monoliths. Just as The Beach Boys and Led Zeppelin – different as they were in terms of style, period and audience – both contributed broadly to the larger genre of rock and roll, classical music is equally comprised of varied and nuanced sub-genres. And the greater Washington D.C. area is a prime place to choose from a range of performances that illustrate that nuance.

Renowned Washington-area keyboardist Joseph Gascho is an active contributor to the revival of one of western music’s early eras, 17th- and 18th-century Baroque.

When asked to articulate his area of specialization, he responded, “There are a few aspects of early music that are different. The timbre is different, the instruments are different…any time you perform, there are different paradigms for what’s important. Most [classical] musicians have a 19th-century approach, with a rich and lush sound. Early music is sparser, clearer. The music is expressive, but softer and more intimate.”

As a harpsichordist, Gascho has been experimenting with a range of early music compositions throughout his career, from early Italian dance music to the milestone collections of J.S. Bach’s keyboard repertoire. As the first prize winner of the 2002 Juror International Harpsichord Competition and the 2005 Pomeroy Prize from the University of Maryland, Gascho has worked as both a soloist and an ensemble player throughout the greater D.C. area and beyond.

Together with recorder player Justin Godoy, Gascho also founded the group Harmonious Blacksmith, whose performances explore the world of Renaissance and Baroque music.

Early music, however, pushes musicians beyond the role of mere performers. During the Baroque era, “Every composer was also a performer and had an active hand in what was going on in the music,” Gascho explained. “That’s why Harmonious Blacksmith takes a lot of liberty to rewrite and rearrange, because that’s the spirit of the music and how it originated. In Harmonious Blacksmith, both myself and Justin are composers. The spirit of the music is composition.”

It was that element of composition that initially drew Gascho to early music. Baroque music is largely composed around improvisation, and early music keyboardists especially have a range of flexibility in which to be spontaneous and creative during performances. The creative spirit of the music goes far in explaining the philosophy that Gascho and Harmonious Blacksmith use when putting a program together. “We are not trying to play [the music] exactly as Bach would have,” Gascho said. “Rather, we want to understand Bach’s approach, to try and think like he was thinking, to get into his mind…We want to get in the spirit of what they were about.”

Gascho will be performing this weekend with Harmonious Blacksmith at the Intersections Festival in Washington D.C, with a program of newly composed music and improvised pieces. Tickets are on sale now.

If you can’t make it to the Intersections Festival this weekend, the month of March still offers opportunities to hear Gascho play live. Harmonious Blacksmith has an upcoming concert featuring a traditional early music program derived from the Thomas Jefferson Music Library, with selections from the late 1700s. The program will run March 29 at George Washington University and March 30 at the University of Virginia.

Gascho will also be performing with the Folger Consort on their upcoming concert “The Songbird”, which features the works of female Baroque composer Francesca Caccini. He will be accompanying soprano Michele Kennedy and violinst Risa Browder. Tickets are on sale now for performances on March 16 – 18.

Gascho is also celebrating the recent release of his first solo recording, a compilation of his own transcriptions that showcase his roles as an equally talented performer, composer and arranger.

(Thumbnail photo courtesy of Douglas Boyce.)