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Returning to the location in which they recorded their first album, Heartland Baroque presented a program featuring works by composers of the Venetian Ospedale in the chapel of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem. This program, however, did not contain any works by Vivaldi, who worked in Venice in the early 18th century and is perhaps the most famous composer to have composed in the Ospedale della Pietà. Instead, the group focused on 17th century Ospedale composers like Giovanni Bassano, Alvise Grani, Giovanni Legrenzi, Johann Rosenmüller, and Alessandro Piccinini.
Heartland Baroque is comprised of Martha Perry and David Wilson (violins), C. Keith Collins (dulcian), Barbara Krumdieck (Baroque cello), and William Simms (theorbo). Their program contained four "sets," with readings from historical writings interspersed throughout. These writings painted a clear picture of the purpose, public opinion, and members of the Ospedale. Ospedale, in Italian, literally means "hospital," but in this case was a convent and orphanage that housed girls while also providing strong musical education from composers like those listed above. The writings ranged from the humorous – like Jean-Jacques Rousseau describing the girls as visually "horrid" while seeing their beauty through their music – to deeply moving, with Francesco Coli describing the desire of the masses to hear the music being produced by these girls to catch even an "echo of these voices of Paradise." These readings were particularly effective because they both educated the audience and transported them to the 17th century when the Ospedale was where some of the best music in the world could be heard.
Additionally, each set began with a solo piece by an individual player in the ensemble. I found this to be one of the most interesting parts of the concert, especially in the case of Collins' and Simms' solos, mostly because I had never heard a dulcian or theorbo in person before this performance. In Collins' introduction, he described these solos as rambling, expressive works, and this was especially true in the violin and dulcian pieces. Perry, Wilson, and Collins created a more free, ethereal atmosphere in their performances. Because of the soloistic natures of their instruments, they were able to showcase their abilities through virtuosic runs, taking advantage of the tall ceilings and lively acoustics of the chapel to emphasize the brightness of their violins or the mellow, inviting tones of the dulcian. Simms' solo stood out the most, not because it was the flashiest, but because of the more subdued sound of the theorbo compared to the other instruments in the ensemble. The quieter theorbo allowed Simms to demonstrate his ability to accompany himself and create more "complete" pieces compared to the outright freedom and virtuosity featured in the other solos. That is not to say one is necessarily better than the other, but the contrast between the two dynamics made these solos even more compelling.
Where Heartland Baroque's talents shone the most, of course, was in their ensemble performance. Even with the vibrant acoustics of the chapel, nothing they played was ever unclear. The way they organized their sets also meant they were constantly switching between the different styles of the various composers they featured, like with contrast between the very Italian, melodic Legrenzi, and Rosenmüller, who was very Germanic in his heavier emotions and textures. In addition to the stylistic changes, there was also the sectional nature of these pieces and the way composers treated cadences in the 17th century, which have a tendency to feel awkward to the modern ear if approached incorrectly. Instead of running from these "awkward" elements, Heartland Baroque embraced them – the correct response.
If you'd like to experience this program for yourself, or if you'd like to simply see a theorbo in person (it's bigger than you think), Heartland Baroque will be performing 17th century works from the Venetian Ospedale across North Carolina through September 24th.