In the finest medium-sized performance space in Henderson County, and perhaps in all of North Carolina, Harmonia Baroque presented music in the style of their name in the fourteenth annual Candlemas Concert at St. James Church. This fund-raising series supports the St. James Outreach Commission, which directs its proceeds to deserving groups and agencies. The beneficiary this year is La Capilla de Santa Maria, a predominantly Hispanic parish of the Diocese of Western North Carolina.
St. James Church is lofty, over one and a half times as high as it is wide, with a recessed chancel, several smaller spaces at irregular intervals, hard plaster walls, and a stone floor. The long reverberation period does not have a muddying effect, so the sound is as good on the very back row as on the first. In this space, the individual instruments of Harmonia Baroque - hautboy, played by Alicia Chapman; traverso, Nancy Schneeloch-Bingham; cello, Kenneth Law; and harpsichord, Michael Bell - and soprano Priscilla Porterfield were showcased to perfection.
Thomas Vincent was English; he, Michael Festing, and Maurice Greene were responsible for founding the charity that became the Royal Society of Musicians. Vincent's Sonata in A minor, originally published, as was the style, for any of several different solo instruments with figured bass, opened the program, featuring the hautboy (oboe). This delicate and typically English work was new to me; I'd like to hear it again soon. The opening Andante was characterized by superb intonation and precise but fluid ornaments. The Allegro con spirito was in three, and both oboe and playing epitomized that loveliest of baroque sonorities, the joyous quacking of well-tuned ducks. The concluding Adagio-Allegro was also in the ternary style of a minuet, with nice ad libs and a Frenchified but musical figured bass realized by Bell.
The hautboy, as she styles it, was played with great panache by Alicia Chapman, principal oboe of the Harrisburg [Pennsylvania] Symphony, oboe instructor at Appalachian State University, and director of that institution's Collegium Musicum, as well as a founding member and leader of Harmonia Baroque. Her instrument is typical of the eighteenth century, more lightly built than modern oboes and devoid of all keys save one. Chapman's sound was crisp, immediate, and full of rich character. She was accompanied by Michael Bell, Oberlin graduate in harpsichord, playing a modern but venerable (1978) double-manual double-manual instrument in the French style, and Kenneth Law, playing a steel-strung modern cello with the pin retracted, held between his knees. Law's training includes diplomas from Eastman, Cleveland Institute of Music, and Peabody; he is Assistant Dean and professor of violoncello and chamber music at the School of Music of Converse College.
Vivaldi's cantata All' ombra di sospetto provided a fifty percent change in personnel, with the appearance on stage of soprano Porterfield and traverso player Schneeloch-Bingham, who holds a recent Ph.D. from Florida State University. Porterfield's extremely flexible voice found no difficulties in either the notes or the language of eighteenth-century Italy; Schneeloch-Bingham's wooden one-keyed flute was a gentle but perfect tonal match for the voice.
The cantata begins with a recitative, only competently written by Vivaldi, but excitingly played by the ensemble. The aria that followed was delineated with highly mannered double dotting, effectively executed by Porterfield, whose delivery is smooth, even, and poised. This aria's richest writing is in a series of slow suspensions between the soprano and the traverso, including C against B-flat, exquisitely sung and played. Porterfield's singing is unforced and, to use the perfect word, very "singing." Her vibrato is under complete control and only appears when totally appropriate. Her Italian diction was also superb. The second recitative was full, in a good way, of issues and drama of the composer's making and the ensemble's enhancement. Bell's snappy cadences were the perfect rhythmic grounding to the soprano's vocal flair. The superb ensemble of these performers was undoubtedly enhanced by the almost continuous eye contact between the instrumentalists, behind the soprano; Porterfield, never looking back, had the skill and self-confidence to pour out her art, safe in the knowledge that her support group would not let her down.
To showcase Bell, the first half of the concert closed with four pieces from Rameau's Pièces de Clavecin of 1724-31, "Le Rappel des Oiseaux," "Rigaudon" (listed as "Rigau"), "Musette en Rondeau," and "Tambourin." That these are four of Rameau's best-known and most accessible pieces does not lessen their greatness, nor did it lessen Bell's obvious delight in performing them. His playing was 99.9% precise and 100% enjoyable and idiomatic.
A conspicuous negative note of the evening was obvious at intermission. Dorothy L. Sayers, in Clouds of Witness , describes the Soviet Club as having "that curious amateur air which pervades all worldly institutions planned by unworldly people; ... staff... sketchily trained and strongly in evidence." Although the interim rector introduced the choirmaster who introduced the ensemble, and ushers scurried to and fro, no provision was made to signal the end of the five-minute intermission, and the musicians returned to the stage to find a room full of people, standing up and chatting in a very worldly way.
In addition, this elaborate music, intended to produce a delicate effect, could have benefited from a couple of authentic baroque stage hands, so that the musicians need not have schlepped their own chairs and stands around between pieces. Given the amount of volunteer help conspicuous at the back end of the hall, future Candlemas performances could benefit from a couple of front-end lackeys and a stage manager.
Another conspicuous negative note of the evening was the six-page letter-size program. Two pages of program had been enlarged to fill four pages, half a page of English gibberish, purporting to be a translation of Vivaldi and Bach libretti, and set in mouse-type, dangled forlornly in the center of a fifth page, bereft of its parent Italian and German, and a sixth page was completely blank.
But back to the fun! The second part opened with the "echo aria" from Part IV of Bach's Christmas Oratorio (S.248), "Flößt, mein Heiland." I've known this wonderful baroque conceit, with its echo effect, through the antique medium of vinyl, but it was my first live hearing. Seated near the front of St. James, it was hard to imagine music more lovely, nor any place finer, short of the Thomaskirche. Schneeloch-Bingham disappeared into a side chapel with her flute, to provide one of the echos in this elaborate three-tiered scheme. Then, on top of an absolutely perfect and inflexible danceband rhythm from the continuo, she and Porterfield and Chapman repeatedly called back and forth to each other, "JA JA, ja ja, ja ja," and "NEIN NEIN, nein nein, nein nein." Pure magic! Porterfield's disjunct leaps on the oboe were particularly praiseworthy.
Schneeloch-Bingham, having said from the stage that St. James was her "ideal performance space," showed us why by playing a solo flute Fantasy in E minor by Telemann. It consists of three delightful little dances, similar in feeling to the contemporary unaccompanied violin and cello pieces of Bach. In St. James the reverberation allows the melody and the accompaniment to overlap while the performer keeps strict time. Before the age of recorded music, solo dance music like this was a commonality that turned many an otherwise-dull party into a dance; its descendents today are mountain fiddle tunes and Irish jigs and reels.
To cap the evening, the full ensemble minus Porterfield looked deep into each other's eyes and gave a first-rate rendition of a Trio Sonata in D Major of J. J. Quantz, Mr. Flute himself. The Adagio was brisk, with spot-on intonation. The Allegro had a series of trills nicely done by Chapman, with each trill accelerating smoothly from very slow to very fast. The Larghetto was atypically a little rough, but not so much that one would notice unless listening very closely. The Vivace was played with a wonderful dancing quality throughout, especially by the traverso. And through the whole evening, though he had no showcased solo role, Law was flawless and indispensable; I look forward to hearing him when he has a more prominent and demanding part.
Report cards are out: each of these fine musicians gets an 'A' for "plays well with others!"
And as if this had not been enough, a sumptuous buffet supper prepared by the youth of St. James, hallmark of the Candlemas Series, followed. This alone was more than worth the cost of a ticket. And the "staff," though conspicuous, was amply trained, courteous and efficient.