On a pleasant, false-spring day in Chapel Hill, the historic sanctuary at The Chapel of the Cross was flooded with warm sunlight and delightful Classical music. Artistic Director of Baroque & Beyond Beverly Biggs presented pianist Andrew Willis with some of his "best musical friends" in a concert of Classical- and Romantic-Era music that also celebrated the tricentennial anniversary of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach's birthday (which is March 8th). This was the organization's final concert of the season. Having outgrown its former venue at the Preservation Society's headquarters, Baroque & Beyond has been hosted this season at Chapel of the Cross, the altar space of which is just barely large enough to cram in the two pianofortes used at this weekend's concert.
To begin, Willis performed CPE Bach's Rondo in B flat, Wq.58, No. 5, a cheery piece showcasing the lovely Stein-replica pianoforte. The instrument's timbre is soft and unadorned, allowing the composition to speak for itself, rather than relying on volume, sustain, or spectacle. Willis' touch was light, almost improvisatory, and stylistically honest to the Classical period. CPE Bach was known for his bending of the rules in this era, but in context of the much more Romantic piano styles we are inundated with today, this piece was tame.
Willis next invited Rebecca Troxler to the stage to perform CPE Bach's Sonata for Flute and Obbligato Keyboard, Wq.84. Troxler performed on a three-keyed Baroque flute, which is different from today's flute because it is wooden and the fingers cover holes rather than pressing keys – except for three primitive pinky keys. The sound of this instrument is much softer and more hollow, with less projection than the modern silver flutes. Troxler and Willis performed side by side, as a duet rather than soloist and accompanist. The sonata is conversational, alternating melodies between the instruments; the balance was phenomenal. The charming flute melodies were minimally ornamented, focusing on the catchy melodic lines, and the pianoforte layered attractively above and below them. Except for one brief restart in the third movement, this duo seemed to read each other's minds during this complex piece.
The next sonata featured Willis with Stephanie Vial, cello. This sonata, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach's Sonata in A, for violoncello and piano, is more refined and uses the cello as a prominent soloist. Vial's performance was elegant and graceful, with great Classical flair, and Willis allowed the cello to take control. Intonation was a slight issue at the beginnings of phrases; whether this was to be blamed on the differing temperament (tuning system) of the pianoforte, the weather, or an inability for the players to hear each other is unclear.
Nonetheless, the fourth selection more than made up for these slight inconsistencies; Troxler, Vial, and Willisl banded together for the first and last movement of Joseph Haydn's Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano in F, Hob. XV:17. If the previous three works had not, then this work certainly began "Waking the Spirit." The concert's title, taken from a 1774 letter by Thomas Twining (son of the tea merchant) detailing the allures of the pianoforte at its creation, was supposed to underscore the uplifting charm of both the pianoforte and the Classical period itself. While the selections of the concert were primarily taken from the Classical period, they bordered on both the Baroque-Early Classical and the Late Classical-Romantic ends of the era. This served as a reminder of the progression between refined, pattern-oriented harmony and revolutionary, passionate melody. Haydn's work introduced dramatic harmonic changes, excursions into related keys, syncopation, and silence. The trio was balanced, dynamic, and even explosive at the final chord.
Troxler, Willis. and Vial treated the audience to an "anticipated encore" before intermission, introducing the second movement Andante of Haydn's Flute Quartet No. 2 in C, a lilting major and minor flute feature that explored a wider range of pitch and a more soloistic approach for the expertly and expressively played flute.
After intermission, Willis and his DMA student Sally Renée Todd took to the stage with a replica Graf pianoforte borrowed from UNC-Chapel Hill to perform Ignaz Moscheles' Grande Sonate in E Flat, Op. 47, for piano, four hands. This 1819 composition, mammoth in comparison with the first half of the concert, was greatly influenced by the music of Beethoven in the new Romantic Era. The thematic music was played more passionately, the performers testing the limits and capacity of the instrument and using a blend of Classical, Romantic, and 20th-century styles of touch at the keyboard, from light and nimble to forceful and dramatic. The instrument itself projected a much fuller timbre than the earlier pianoforte but was still duskier than the grand piano we know today. Willis and Todd were relaxed, moving with the music and enjoying themselves – nothing compares to the way Willis' face lit up whenever he sat on the piano bench and began to play. The hours these two spent rehearsing together were particularly apparent in several passages when they would simultaneously smile and sway with the phrases.
Met with rousing applause – thunderous despite a sparse, Sunday-afternoon audience on a college game-day – Willis and Todd indulged the audience in a "Characteristic March" by Schubert as an encore. This loud, banging piece served as the final "ta-da" of an already delightful concert and rounded out the transition from Classical to Romantic. This wellspring of talent was a rare treat that hopefully will gain more appreciation and attendance in the future, because Baroque & Beyond certainly deserves a place in the ranks of fine musical establishments in the Triangle.