Ensemble Vermillian on the stage of Cullman Performance Hall is a welcome addition to the serious part of the New Bern music scene. Vermillian, for this concert, was Frances Blaker, recorders, David Wilson, violin, Barbara Blaker Krumdieck, cello, William Simms, theorbo, and John O'Brien, harpsichord. The program was big - almost two hours of glorious music that never tired. The featured composer was Jean-Marie Leclair, contrasted with Alessandro Piccinini, J. S. Bach, and Henry Purcell.
The ensemble opened with Leclair's Sonata for two violins, Op. 4, No.1, with Blaker taking one of the violin parts on treble recorder. Thus it was a trio sonata for two high solo voices and basso continuo (not some kind of instrument, as my music appreciation teacher would have had it, many years ago, but the concept of one or more players providing the accompaniment on whatever instruments they happened to be versatile on, such as cello, double bass, viola da gamba, harpsichord, organ, or theorbo). It was immediately obvious that right there in front of everybody and in the midst of this superb music the musicians were having far too much fun. This sort of thing is contagious, and the audience became immediately infected. The cascading bass lines on the cello brought looks of sublime pleasure to Krumdieck's face, with similar responses from everyone else. Krumdieck makes strong and warm music on her baroque-set-up gut-strung cello, which pairs well with Wilson's even, precise violin and Blaker's hooty odd-numbered-harmonics-favored recorder. The second movement, Largo, was a mixture of very dramatic rhetorical statements and smooth, flowing melodic lines. It was clear that one of the reasons this group plays so well together is the constant eye contact they all maintain with each other. Blaker's advanced recorder technique was obvious as she occasionally shaded a note by resting the foot of her instrument on her thigh, partially to close the bottom opening. Her intonation was flawless throughout the concert.
Simms, the “guitar man” in the group, took a few minutes to explain and demonstrate his theorbo, which has seven courses in typical lute tuning, with frets, and eight more "diapasons" tuned stepwise to provide a stronger bass. He performed a solo piece, Piccinini's Partita on [an] "Aria francese detta l'Alemana." He explained off-stage that flying with a rigid instrument seven feet long was something of a challenge, requiring a second ticket and a seat on the rear row when available. His large and powerful theorbo was somewhat swallowed by the stage draperies of Cullman, which is a really fine place for PowerPoint shows. Otherwise, in the ensemble works, the somewhat dry sound made following and distinguishing the parts easier than in a musically warmer room.
Leclair's Op.2, No. 8, is a trio sonata for violin and (originally viola da gamba, but here) cello; the substitution, given the equal-sister relationship between the gamba and the baroque cello, did no violence to the music. The extremely verbal quality of Krumdieck's playing, especially in the higher registers, created a perfect dialog with Wilson's violin, especially as they both play perfectly in tune and avoid the vibrato of nineteenth-century style. Both Wilson and Krumdieck were careful and rhythmically precise as they passed the solo lines back and forth.
In a transcription of the aria "Vergnügte Ruh'" from Bach's Cantata 170, Blaker took the alto voice line on tenor recorder as Wilson played the oboe d'amore line on his violin, leaving Krumdieck, O'Brien, and Simms to take up the slack, and a gracious plenty they were.
This gentle reshuffling of resources gave O'Brien an opportunity to discuss the baroque concept of the basso continuo, to which I referred above. The task of continuo players is made easier (or more difficult, as you please) by the fact that they are given only a one-note bass line, with a number or two, representing the harmonies the composer desires. Within that framework, they are allowed to ad lib; players with self-assurance can say that there are no wrong notes possible. O'Brien also mentioned that he was playing a house harpsichord by Richard Kingston, a fine North Carolina builder; O'Brien demonstrated the buff stop. All the players were ceremonially dressed, but with a perfect balance of the informal; Wilson in coat and tie, O'Brien in a lavender shirt and a tie with a keyboard on it. Blaker had on kethoneth passim, Simms a bright shirt, and Krumdieck, mimsy little pajim-jams with cutwork on the leg. All the company displayed the right mix of stage presence and informality and the right balance between no commentary and talking too much.
Leclair's Op. 5, No. 4, is a duo sonata with one high voice (in this case treble recorder) and basso continuo. The Adagio was very florid, as befits a show-off composition; Blaker showed off excellently. Particularly noticeable was the way she dealt with several long notes, not by precise trilling, but by shading the hole for the lower note slightly and increasing in speed to produce a delicious undulating, singing quality. And if you think this is easy, you can try it at home. The band ignored the ma non troppo of the succeeding Allegro, starting with an opening trumpet call – ta dah – and off they went into the florid passages. The final Ciacconna becomes something of an exception to the duo form when the cello escapes from the repetitive bass of the chaconne and runs off like an anchoress fleeing her cell, until Leclair catches her and brings her home. But what jolly freedom it was!
Next, Purcell's Sonata 9, from the Sonatas in four parts. Purcell was known by his contemporaries as the English Orpheus. Pairing this music with the Vermillian Orphei delivered a five-movement piece of magic that deserves a review all its own. Everything here was perfect: intonation, rhythm, rhetoric.
To conclude, Vermillian gave us one of Bach's trio sonatas, S.539, originally composed for one performer, on the organ. If it can be said that this reviewer has ever been identified with an instrument, it would be the organ. I've known this piece, from others' performances and from recordings, since I was a teenager. On the organ, even in the best hands, it is a spare and sere piece. I had read its name on the program; I know its notes. And yet the lush, rich sound of the transcription for the entire company rolled over me and I lost myself in a reverie. As I listened, I kept having that feeling in the back of my mind, “I know this. What is this piece? Which Trio Sonata is this? Is it from The Musical Offering?” Then I remembered where I was and what they were playing. Pure glory! The instrumental performance was much faster than most organists play it, and with a basso continuo figured and filled in by O'Brien and Simms, this became a new and bigger work.
Let there be no mistake that this is some nepotistic garage band with two sisters and friends. Ensemble Vermillian brings joy to add to excellent playing!