This summer finds the welcome return of the third biennial Magnolia Baroque Festival. The visionary music festival was founded in 2005 by Glenn Siebert who is a faculty member of the North Carolina School of the Arts who has wide international experience in historically-informed performances. The organizational instigator and prime mover of this festival was (and is) the generous and visionary Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts. Many of the musicians have connections with the NCSA. Imaginative use of local venues involves Salem College, Old Salem, NCSA, the Stevens Center, and local churches. The depth of the rich legacy of the Moravians is explored during every festival season, drawing upon scores in the Moravian Archives.
The focus of the festival's first program was "The Moravians' Passion for Music" and took place in the mellow, warm acoustics of Calvary Moravian Church. An engaging and focused pre-concert lecture by Nola Krouse, Director of the Moravian Archives, emphasized the central role of the Collegium musicum in the life of the Moravian community. Music was a vital part of education, and she said Moravians of the period expected their ministers to be able to hold their own on a violin. The local archive has some 580 musical works, most in manuscripts. She gave a tantalizing list of some of the composers represented: J. C. Bach, Haydn, and various members of the fruitful Stamitz family. Early visitors to colonial period Moravian communities were impressed by the high level of musical facility and sophistication. Krouse recounted Layfette being amazed to hear an Italian concerto being played well nearby. Checking next door, he found a group of Moravian tradesmen playing for their pleasure.
This concert's musicians played either period instruments or expert copies of them. Eighteenth century string instruments have a flatter bridge and used gut strings under less tension. Their sound is lighter but, with a good period bow, some parts of scores can be better articulated. The string players were violinists Gesa Kordes and Martha Perry, violists Annie Loud and John O'Brien, and cellist Brent Wissick. Rebecca Troxler played a wooden transverse flute, a copy of one by Grenser, ca. 1770. Andrew Willis played a copy of a fortepiano made by Anton Walter in ca. 1790. With its gentler sound, balancing the keyboard's dynamics with other instruments is much easier. The mellow and warm sound of a Walter-type fortepiano blends beautifully with period strings.
Substantial string quintets by Moravian composers bookended a mix of other typical pieces of Moravian chamber music that contrasted with two works by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1793). The musical idiom is the same but it must be admitted that Haydn and Mozart are more daring and inventive.
Václav Pichl (1741-1805) was a prolific composer of over 900 works, operas, symphonies, concertos, and a lot of chamber music. His String Quintet in A, Op. 30, no. 3 (1797) is easy to hear, the second and third movements containing more memorable music. Like Haydn's early string quartets, the first violin dominates. A surprising number of Kordes' higher notes had a sour edge. Perhaps the day's radical drop in humidity upset her instrument?
The Trio in D by Johann Daniel Grimm (1719-1760) was unusual, calling for viola, cello, and fortepiano instead of the usual violin, cello, and keyboard. The blend of the two lower strings was winning, and violist Loud and cellist Wissick made the strongest possible case for it. Willis did all that could be done with a less interesting, very much accompanying part for the keyboard.
Willis' extraordinary virtuosity was given full scope in two well-known selections by Haydn — Fantasia in C, Hob. XVII: 4 (1789), and Sonata in G, Hob. XVI: 40 (1782-84?). Willis articulated every note precisely as he "burnt up the ivories" in the sonata's "Presto"!
Violinist Gesa Kordes and Willis gave a thoughtful interpretation of Mozart's Sonata in E-flat, K. 380 (1781).
The Divertimento in C for Traverso, Violin, and Cello (c.1780) by Leopold Hofmann (1738-1813) was a pleasing discovery, possessing winning themes that invite repeated listening. The level of its themes or melodies are much above the norm for what is in effect, eighteenth century "elevator music," music meant to be in the background. The performance by Rebecca Troxler, Kordes, and Wissick was worthy of being recorded.
One of the most important Moravian composers in the archives is Johann Friedrich Peter (1746-1813). He was a prodigious copier of significant European works which he brought to the Moravian settlements in Pennsylvania and NC. He gave one of the earliest performances of Haydn's Creation in Bethlehem, PA., followed by another in Salem! During the last festival, I saw Peter's own second hand-copied score of the Haydn oratorio as part of a fascinating tour of the archives.
Peter's String Quintet No. 6 in E-flat is a much more interesting work than the one by Pichl that opened the program. The scoring has juicy parts for all five players with much more elaborate development. The joy of the festival's string players, the give-and-take between musicians, was infectious and earned multiple curtain calls. This work ought to be recorded.