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Bemidji Baroque Ensemble: Still going strong, 35 years later

The Bemidji Baroque Ensemble will perform at 3 p.m. Sunday. From left are Margaret Maxwell, Natalie Roholt, Melanie Hanson and Patrick Riley. Hanson will join the group as a guest artist on two pieces during the concert. Submitted Photo

BEMIDJI – To get that smile and twinkle in the eye from Patrick Riley, just ask him to talk a bit about his favorite subject – music; teaching and playing music to be precise.

Riley, who retired from Bemidji State University last year, admits to missing his students, but life does go on after retirement although at a slower pace and in different directions. When we recently spoke, Riley had just finished recording a CD of children’s songs with Pat Surface of Ely, a guitarist and singer who appears regularly at Bemidji’s Art in the Park. Riley and Surface have recorded a few CDs at Gary Burger’s studio in Turtle River. Riley plays the cello and double bass. And speaking of double bass, Riley is still playing with the Bemidji Jazz Quartet at the Forestedge Winery and Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis and local venues.

But it is this Sunday’s concert by the Bemidji Baroque Ensemble that has Riley’s attention at the moment. The original ensemble started 35 years ago with the same players and neighbors: Riley, his wife Natalie Roholt and Margaret Maxwell.

“It was always easy for us to get together and play,” said Riley. “We have a long history of being together for social and recreational events as couples.”

Riley spoke about coming to BSU in 1973, fresh out of the Army where he played with a field band, and finding some kindred souls who also liked to play in ensembles.

The ensemble started when pianist Maxwell wanted to play the harpsichord and the college had the instrument. As Riley went on to explain, there is a huge amount of music — thousands if not hundreds of thousands of trio sonatas. The repertoire is inexhaustible and the ensemble plays new pieces every year.

“We love to play, of course, and the Baroque Ensemble has always had an educational mission in trying to do historically informed performances with the study of ornamentation and the use of Baroque instruments,” said Riley. “So we like to teach a little bit when we’re playing and the audience really responds to that; they love to hear the people talking about what they’re doing when they’re on stage.”

Riley said that since they are members of the community, people feel free to come down after the concert and handle the instruments. Students from the elementary, middle and high school come because Maxwell has a large number of piano students and they like to attend the concerts.

“On Sunday, we will be playing the best of the great masters of the Baroque: Bach, Handel, Telemann and Couperin,” said Riley. “They came at the end of the (Baroque) period and they really nailed it. For Telemann we are doing the Paris Quartet and it’s the best because every part is a solo instrument and it’s so much fun to play and visually interesting.”

Melanie Hanson, concert master for the Bemidji Symphony Orchestra, will joining the group for that piece.

Hanson will also be joining the ensemble for Bach’s G Major Trio Sonata.

Maxwell will be playing Couperin’s solo harpsichord music because of requests from previous concert goers.

Although most age groups are welcome to attend, children under the age of 6 are not encouraged to come. The concert is free to the public.