On Friday evening, June 24, in Watson Hall on the campus of the North Carolina School of the Arts, the Magnolia Baroque Festival featured two exquisite dancers in three different settings, first a blind man's bluff, then a feisty Spanish setting, complete with castanets, and finally a pantomime based on the antics of the Commedia del Arte characters, Columbine and Harlequin. The dance was delightful and showed various aspects of baroque dance as it migrated from Italy to France and Spain. All three dance segments were choreographed to music of Vivaldi.
But the music was the highlight of the evening, again played on period instruments (or replicas thereof) and with what we believe to be the authentic performance practices of the time. Chief among these practices is the ability of the musician or soloist to alter or embellish the written part according to certain known but fairly free rules. Much like improvisation in jazz, this leads to great spontaneity and a different version of the piece each time it is performed.
The concert opened with one of Vivaldi's best known works, the Concerto for Two Trumpets in C Major, nimbly and skillfully played by Barry Bauguess and Norman Engel. These baroque trumpets appear longer than their contemporary counterparts and have strategically placed holes bored into the tube instead of valves or pistons. Of all the instruments heard this week at the festival, these trumpets sound most like their descendants.
Next a mixed ensemble* consisting of a flute, an oboe, a violin, a bassoon and the ubiquitous continuo (bass and/or cello plus a keyboard instrument playing the basic harmony) played Vivaldi's three-movement Concerto in D Major, RV95, subtitled La Pastorella (The Shepherdess). The dancers – Paige Whitley-Bauguess as the shepherdess, and Thomas Baird, the shepherd – amused the audience with their flirtatious game of blind man's bluff. Much of the dancing was mirrored, with very little difference between the male steps and those of the female dancer.
According to the informative program notes, the composer of the next piece on the program, Baldassari Gallupi, was more popular and better-known than the somewhat older Vivaldi. His solo Sonata in d minor for harpsichord was adroitly played by Wake Forest University piano professor Peter Kairoff, to whom we are also indebted for the program notes. Kairoff played the first movement of the two-movement work in the hesitant and faltering style apparently popular in 18th-century Venice, and delivered the gigue-like last movement with verve and vigor.
A superb rendition of Marcello's popular Oboe Concerto in d minor produced some of the best playing of the evening. On the whole, the sound of the Baroque oboe is less nasal and less piercing than its modern equivalent. Oboist John Abberger was supple and sinuous in the beautifully embellished second movement and brilliant in the virtuoso third movement.
The dancers returned after the intermission to introduce us to some steps more typical of Iberia than Venice, appropriately matched to Vivaldi's version of the antique Spanish 16-measure theme, "La Folia" (madness or empty-headed). Perhaps the best known version is the violin work immortalized by Arcangelo Corelli, but no less than 150 composers have produced versions of this 400-year-old theme. The dancers were stylishly costumed in red, white and black, and they presented much greater variety in steps and movement around the stage. There was a whole set of variations for the female dancer followed by an elaborate set for the male dancer. While violinists Jeanne Johnson and Daniela Pierson built the music up to a magnificent climax, the dancers came together in a brilliant flurry of steps and leaps.
Albinoni's lovely Flute Concerto in G Major brought us the intimate and warm tone of flautist Colin St. Martin. The wooden baroque flute sounds purer, softer, and darker than the brilliant and shiny metal modern flute. Of course, for all the instruments, the needs of the full symphony orchestra, playing in 2000-seat venues, require instruments that can cut through the thick ensemble and carry to the far reaches of huge halls. Fortunately for us, the small size of the ensembles and intimate setting of small halls such as the magnificent Watson Hall at NCSA allow the use of these original instruments with all their subtleties.
The evening ended with a pantomime enacted on the theme of Harlequin and Columbine, not unlike a baroque Punch and Judy. The music was again provided by Vivaldi – his Concerto in D, RV94, for flute, oboe, violin, and continuo. The slapstick comedy ended in an uproarious musical din during which Columbine dashed her unflattering portrait over the head of her suitor and painter, Harlequin. This brought the whole delightful evening to a smashing end.
*Personnel for the festival are listed at http://www.magnoliabaroque.com/about.php [inactive 11/05].