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Yet another classical music ensemble, the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, has joyfully returned to the stage and the thrill of live performance. Led by Frances Blaker, who also presided as emcee and took a turn as a recorder soloist, the authentic-instrument players assembled at Sharon Presbyterian Church, which has happily returned to hosting and sponsoring concerts in their sanctuary. The title of the concert, "Les fontaines de Versailles," deftly signaled that the Baroque offerings would not be limited to works by the usual German and Italian suspects. Aside from pieces by Handel, Telemann, Vivaldi and Albinoni, we heard music by Michel-Richard de Lalande, André Campra, Johann Fasch, Michel Corrette, and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Lalande's Les fontaines de Versailles wasn't the pièce de resistance of the evening, but it certainly keynoted the multiple infusions of Gallic flavor into the program.
Georg Friedrich Handel's Overture to Alessandro was likely the most familiar composition on a warhorse-free playlist, so there were multiple reasons for us sitting in the Sharon Presbyterian pews to experience frissons of pleasure. We could be surprised by the unexpected familiarity of the music or by how wonderful a live Baroque orchestra sounded in a sanctuary after more than a year-and-a-half of being deprived of the satisfaction. This place was what this kind of music was for, though the complete Alessandro was a somewhat comical opera of royal intrigue with Alexander the Great in the middle of a romantic triangle. Violins were at the center of the gorgeous orchestral texture at the start of the Overture, its stately gait blooming emphatically and effortlessly throughout the hall. Tempos sped up and slowed with an ebb and flow that suggested the full opera in miniature – responses by the wind instruments growing boldest in the swift episode before the music settled into its ultimate repose.
Lalande's little gem, with grand treble harmonies from trilling winds over dancing strings in 3/4 meter, was actually nestled between two multi-movement concertos by Georg Philipp Telemann and Antonio Vivaldi. Each of these concertos, in turn, featured multiple soloists. In Telemann's E minor Concerto for Recorder and Flute, TWV 52:e1, Blaker teamed with flutist Kathleen Kraft on the first two movements of the four-movement work. The opening Largo had a more balanced interplay between the soloists, with exquisitely intertwined melodies and harmonies, but Kraft was clearly at the forefront in the ensuing Allegro, delightfully fleet in her playing with Blaker surfacing most deliciously when her recorder blended with the virtuosic flute.
Vivaldi's Concerto in D for two violins and two cellos, RV 564, was presented in its entirety, two Allegro movements separated by a shorter Largo. Blaker added some engaging showmanship by calling upon a different pair of violinists for each movement, thereby showcasing most of the section. Tom Lajoie and concertmaster Martie Perry, playing the violin solos in the brisk opening movement, with churning violins and foreboding cellos behind them, proved to be a tough act to follow. The Largo, pairing violinists David Wilson and Janelle Davis, reminded me of Vivaldi's most familiar Mandolin Concerto, and the closing Allegro brought us spirited exchanges between Annie Loud and Steph Zimmerman – with cellists Alexa Hanes-Pilon and Lisa Liske making their most distinctive contributions.
After a halved intermission that Blaker proclaimed would be seven-and-a-half minutes, NC Baroque demonstrated that multi-movement pieces would not be devoted exclusively to famous composers. Gleaned from Campra's three-act comédie-lyrique of 1699, Le Carnaval de Venise, the ensemble played four instrumental excerpts, shuttling between slow and fast. The Ouverture began as a stately processional before the winds began mimicking the accelerated strings in canonical fashion, gliding into a dignified slowdown. Two "Airs pour les Arts" followed, the second noticeably swifter than the first, and then a "Marche de la Fortune" for the Followers of Fortune, achingly slow and mesmerizing. Two passe-pieds offered joyous compensation for this lull, closing out this charming sampler, both of them very sprightly, bringing smiles to those faces that weren't masked.
Looking forward to the oncoming Classical period, Fasch's Allegro, from his three-movement Concerto Grosso in D minor, FaWV L:d7, was the pleasant little departure that Blaker promised, retaining many Baroque traits with its woodwind filigree, yet more homophonic in its string textures. At times, the wind voicings sounded almost brassy. In the French segment that followed, Blaker and the orchestra began with the "Rondeau – Danse exécutée par les sauvages" from Rameau's Les Indes Galantes and moved smoothly into Corrette's "Carillon des Mortes." Compared with the most outré moments of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Rameau's Danse was not savage at all, rather formal, and the alternate title, "Danse du Grand Calumet de la Paix," is more accurately descriptive of this Rondeau, which was nearly as familiar to me as the Handel selection. Similarly, the back and forth of flutes in the Corrette composition was rather blandly descriptive compared to more percussive evocations of bells by modern composers. All in all, there was an amusing quaintness and restraint to these paired programmatic ventures.
Albinoni's Sinfonia in G minor for two flutes, two oboes, bassoon and strings, Si 7, was a great way to conclude this concert, though I wondered why the wind soloists didn't come downstage as Blaker and Kraft had done. On an I Solisti Veneti compilation of 12 concertos and three Sinfonias, conducted by Claudio Scimone, this G minor also concludes that program, so its appeal is far from subtle – which was likely why we heard much of the finest playing of the night in these three delectable movements, the whole of this petite symphony. Liveliness was apparent in the first notes of the Allegro, featuring some choice exchanges between bassoonists Chuck Wines and Hanes-Pilon, who abandoned her cello here. Flutes separated themselves melodiously from the full ensemble in the ensuing Larghetto e sempre piano, offered up in beguiling 3/4 time. We finished with what sounded like the fastest Allegro of the night, with especially dazzling ensemble bowing from the violins. This was not only a joyous return for NC Baroque, it was also a reaffirmation that Charlotte, with a return of our Bach Festival looming in 2022, is a hotbed for this music.