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The Magnolia Baroque Festival reached its half-way point with a magnificent Friday evening program at the NC School of the Arts. The star of the show was violinist Ingrid Matthews, the young and beautiful Tar Heel native (born in Chapel Hill) who trained at the NCSA (where her father is the distinguished senior keyboard artist and teacher) and who has matured as one of our nation's leading early-, or historic-instrument, practitioners. She's set all kinds of standards at Baroque festivals, and now she's home, visiting family and brightening the cultural lives of her many fans and friends here.
This year, the festival has been playing around in various venues (including a run-out to Duke on Tuesday and a roundup in taverns, churches, and such as Old Salem this coming Sunday). For the Matthews concert, titled "Love of Bach," the venue was the gem-like chamber music hall that bears the name of Bill and Judy Watson, a music room that is as warm and inviting as they come, anywhere. The sound is wonderful, there are no mechanical noises or bad seats, and the rich wood and black stone appointments provide comfort to the eyes.
The program consisted of the main works for violin and ensemble by J.S. Bach. There aren't all that many — there are lots more concerti for keyboard than for violin — and it would have taken some genre-bending (which should not be confused with gender-bending!) to expand the program much more. On the lineup were the two extant concerti that were composed for solo violin — works in A Minor, S.1041, and E, S.1042 — plus the Double Concerto in D Minor, S.1043, and the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto, in G, S.1049, which is scored for solo violin and two recorders. These things are often heard in "big Bach" renditions, played by large string sections and high-powered, high-tech contemporary fiddlers; here, it was a one-to-a-part deal, given on lower-than-standard-concert-pitch instruments with gut strings and reduced-tension bows, with harpsichord, and with wooden recorders in the Brandenburg. This "original instruments" approach, which I and others often refer to as HIP (for "historic instrument performance"), is, I am personally convinced, the correct way to hear Bach, or at least as correct as we are likely to encounter nowadays, given the fact that we cannot go back in time to Bach's era, and we cannot at the drop of a hat shed all the musical baggage we've grown up with in our own time.... So we must remember that everything's changed except the music on the manuscript page — the halls are bigger, the instruments often project better, the musicians (and their listeners) live longer, we can hear an awful lot of the music we love pretty much on demand (which is probably one reason we are familiar enough with it to love it), and Old Bach's not around to complain when someone messes up.
Not that Bach is likely to have complained very much about the playing at this concert, with the possible exception of some ensemble and/or pitch issues at the start of the Double Concerto. Before we got to that, however, Matthews played the Concerto in E, partnered by violinists Martha Perry (a native of Raleigh) and Jeanne Johnson, violist John Pruett (filling in for the previously-announced John O'Brien), cellist Elizabeth Reed (who, like Matthews, has Orange Co. roots), violonist Robbie Link (of Hillsborough), and harpsichordist Joseph Gascho. (Incidentally, Link's violone, an early version of today's double bass that, with its highly curvaceous body, is as lovely to look upon as it is to hear, is also a product of NC!)
The familiar E Major Concerto received an elegant, glowing reading of great passion and clarity, too, one that tricked the ear into thinking, often, that this was new music, being played for the first time, so fresh and vibrant was the performance. (It wasn't the only time during the concert that this thought came to mind.) There was a certain inevitability, a certain rightness about the rendition, which was so lively it was hard to keep still. The slow movement was profoundly spiritual, ethereal, and moving, with the solo violin emerging from silence, as if from heaven above. The finale was as vibrant as the opening movement, elegant and precise and breathtaking in its sweep and scope. In introductory remarks, MBF Director Glenn Siebert said that the program represented "the heart, the soul, and the mind" of music from this period. Not for the last time, these words gave text and context to the music.
The famous Double Concerto featured Perry and Johnson, with Matthews and Annie Loud replacing them in the accompanying ensemble, and with Pruett, Reed, Link, and Gascho, as before. This was marginally less successful than the other works played, in part due to a slightly shaky start but also, I think, because the music often seemed jet propelled, especially in the first movement, where exuberance and abandon were just on the verge of getting out of hand. The slow movement was gorgeous, the finale of the last movement dazzled, and the crowd was not in the least displeased, overall.
Matthews returned after intermission to solo in the A Minor Concerto, perhaps the best known of these solo violin works. As before, her playing was exemplary in every conceivable respect; she is technically secure, stylistically informed, and artistically inspired, and her playing seemed to inspire the best, most engaged playing of her colleagues (including Johnson and Perry, back in the ensemble). The slow movement (I beg the reader's indulgence, but the slow movements are where it's at for me, in Bach) was truly magical, and one could have heard single pins drop in the hall, so intense was the audience's listening as the soloist and her colleagues spun their tunes. The finale seemed to soar skyward as it unfolded. Berlioz used antique cymbals in the Sanctus of his Requiem, to depict the fluttering of angels' wings; surely there was a lift of that kind here, in this great work.
The concluding number was the Fourth Brandenburg, in which Matthews shared the solo spotlight with recorder virtuosos Justin Godoy and Meg Owens. Godoy has had his ticket punched in all the right places (Boston, Holland, etc.) and Owens is another of our own, trained (in part) at UNCG. The addition of the wind instruments increased the overall sonority in this grand finale, but the playing remained incisive, refined, and at a miles-high artistic level. This was a grand and glorious cap to an exceptional evening that must rank among the finest concerts heard anywhere in our state this season. Yep, Bach is best, and this was some fabulously great Bach playing.
But come to think of it, a bona-fide Handel festival would be welcome here, perhaps in Winston-Salem, in the years when Magnolia isn't scheduled!
The Magnolia Baroque Festival concluded Sunday with performances by festival apprentices throughout Old Salem.