The audience came to a downtown Greenville café to hear the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra in its second-ever performance, but many in the audience came away more impressed with a Durham singer who provided two lovely solos among the orchestra’s instrumental works. Erica Dunkle, who is well known in the Triangle for her alto and mezzo-soprano singing, performed an aria from a Handel opera and a stand-alone sacred work by Heinrich Schutz, and both selections were captivating.
The occasion was part of East Carolina University music professor John O’Brien’s 2011-12 series of Greenville chamber concerts that he usually sponsors in his house, known as the Music House. But because of the size of the ensemble, and the anticipated size of the audience, this program took place in the Tipsy Teapot. The room adjacent to the café was, in fact, filled to overflowing with about 100 people. The orchestra, under the direction of Frances Blaker, performed two of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti and works by Muffat and Bertali. The ensemble consists of more than a dozen players, most of them from North Carolina, and they play mostly reproductions of period instruments. No lushness and very little softness in this string-dominated music, but one gets the feeling that such an evening might have been what attending a chamber concert in the late 17th or 18th century could have been like.
Blaker chose Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 to open the program and No. 4 to close the program. No. 5 has perhaps the best known opening of the six concerti, an interesting trio for a second “Affettuoso” movement and a dazzling harpsichord solo in the first movement that predicts the kind of cadenzas that would be popular in later piano concerti. No. 5 ostensibly is a concerto for violin and flute, but it is also one in which the harpsichord becomes a full partner, leaving the continuo role to two cellos. O’Brien was quite busy throughout the piece and handled the long (and demanding) solo in the opening allegro movement splendidly. The violin solo was played by Pete Lekx, who came from Ohio to join the group, and the baroque flute solo was by Rebecca Troxler of Cary. The middle trio movement with O’Brien, Lekx and Troxler was played without conductor but with considerable sensitivity, and the lively final movement brought all the forces together for a satisfying conclusion.
Muffat’s Passacaglia from his Sonata V, Armonica Tributo, written in tribute to Corelli, relies on a nice ensemble of recorders and solo violin passages by David Wilson, a frequent member of the American Bach Soloists and Muffat expert who came from California to play. Antonio Bertali’s Sonata “Tausend Gulden” is marked by several changes in character, from somber to lively to somber, and it, too, featured solo violin work by Wilson and nice violin exchanges between Wilson and Martie Perry. The ending is a gorgeous but somber chord. However, within this piece was one of two instances in which the ensemble experienced some pitch difficulties.
The other pitch issue came in the middle andante movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. Perhaps part of the problem was the nature of the instruments with their gut strings—the thinness of the sound was not exactly brittle, but just one instrument being the slightest bit sharp or flat detracted from the overall ensemble sound. Both the Bertali and Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 were otherwise quite well played, and the fugue that developed in the final presto movement of the Bach piece was performed nicely. The passages for recorders and flute in the Bach also were done well.
But for many, the evening’s highlights were the solos by Ms. Dunkle, who sang “L’aure che spira” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, and “Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott” by Schutz, both accompanied by the orchestra. Her voice was full, rich and warm, with an almost honey-like quality, and with great control and expression. The Schutz solo was especially notable for its closing line, an incredibly long 24 beats that came around not once, but twice, and that seemed to be sung without pause. Ms. Dunkle might have snuck in a breath, but if so, it was barely noticeable, and neither the tone nor the pitch faltered.
The orchestra, which performed for the first time in Greenville and in the Triangle in August, is a group that bears watching, and if the recent Greenville concert is any indication, its reputation will grow.