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Carolina Baroque’s concert in Salisbury’s lovely Chapel of St. John’s Lutheran Church was bittersweet because it was the ensemble’s final concert. The HIP group, “historically informed performance” or Early Music ensemble, was organized in 1988 by the distinguished recorder virtuoso Dale Higbee, and was ending twenty-three seasons of remarkably imaginative baroque music programming. While J.S. Bach and George Friedrich Handel were centerpieces of Higbee’s tastes, French and Italian composers were never ignored. In 2011 the then eighty-six year-old musician announced his retirement and the ensemble’s disbanding. This intriguing concert was a fine sampling of the typical programming explored by Higbee and his players, some of the Piedmont’s finest musicians.
Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755) was a prolific French composer of instrumental music, cantatas, opera-ballets, and vocal music. He was one of the first composers to not have a patron. A royal license for engraving music allowed him to become rich. His Trio Sonata in A minor, in three movements, had several surprises worthy of a much later Haydn. The opening Vivace features sudden interruptions while the Largo has lovely themes. The concluding Allegro has plenty of give-and-take among all three players. Baroque violinist John Pruett produced a fine tone. He was joined by viola da gambist Holly Maurer, and harpsichordist Susan Bates. Their intonation and phrasing were excellent.
The seventh stanza from Bach’s Cantata Schwingt freudig euch empor (Raise Yourself Up Joyfully) S. 36, “Auch mit gadämpton, schwachen Stimmen” (Also with muted, weak voices) came next. Soprano Teresa Radomski sang with a beautiful, warm tone and excellent diction. She was ably supported by baroque violinist Susan Perkins, gambist Maurer, and Bates on a gorgeous sounding chamber organ.
Susan Bates took a solo turn next playing Canzona Quarta by Italian composer Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) on the chamber organ which produced a remarkable dynamic range. Bates played with great style and careful attention to the structure of the music.
Georg Muffat (1653-1704) was born in Megéve, Savoy now in France. He was a student of Lully and met Corelli while studying in Italy. He was based in Salzburg and Passau, Germany at the end of his career. The printed program identified the Muffat selection as Sonata for Violin Solo but John Pruett was ably supported by gambist Maurer, and organist Bates. They were very much in the background for some pretty fiery fiddling by Pruett. His articulation of really fast passages was marvelous.
“Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten” (We hasten with weak, yet eager steps) from Bach’s Cantata Jesu, der du meine Seele (Jesus, Thou who my Soul), S. 78, ended the first half of the concert. This featured the strongly contrasted voices of bright soprano Mary Mendenhall and the dark, solid contralto Lee Morgan. Their perfectly matched held notes were a delight as was the catchy rhythm. Bates and Maurer provided the light accompaniment.
Before the audience was released for intermission, Salisbury got to give its official recognition of Higbee’s achievements. Mayor Paul B. Woodson, Jr. read the long official document declaring August 5, 2012 Dale Higbee Day in the charming town.
Post intermission was dominated by excerpts from great Handel operas and vocal works spiced with two pinches of Rameau. The singers were accompanied by violinists Pruett and Perkins, violist Marian Wilson, gambist Maurer, with Bates switching between harpsichord and organ. Singers and instrumentalists made apt, tasteful ornamentation.
From Handel’s Carmelite Vespers, soprano Radomski sang “Haec est regina virginum,” HWV 235 (Behold the Queen of Virgins) with superb diction and a seamless, even tone. It features a charming instrumental introduction.
Next came the “Entrée” and “Un pensiero voil in ciel” (Let a thought fly up to heaven) from Handel’s Italian secular cantata Delirio amoroso, HWV 99. Soprano Mary Mendenhall sang this lively setting with a bright, clarion tone and excellent breath control. Her long held notes were breathtaking and often matched by Preutt’s violin.
Two selections from Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) gave Susan Bates ample scope on her lovely sounding harpsichord. "L’Entretiens des Muses" features an elegant, slow tempo while "Les Tourbillons" was very rapid with plenty of opportunities for crossed hands.
Two famous Handel arias came next. From his great opera Rinaldo, Lee Morgan delivered an impassioned “Cara sposa” (My dear betrothed, my dear love, where are you?). The slow, mournful first part is set against an assertive and rapid “Evil Spirits, I defy you.” Morgan took care to properly vary her de capo repeats. Radomski brought equal musicianship as well as emotional depth to the “Armida, dispietata…Lascia ch’io pianga” (Cruel Armida!...Let me weep) from Rinaldo.
“Vivere e non amar” from Handel’s Cantata a tre, Clori, Tirsi e fileno, HWV 96, brought the concert to a fulfilling and satisfying conclusion. All three singers, Mendenhall, Morgan, and Radomski, had a ball dealing with Handel’s tricky entrances and pairings.
Dale Higbee’s biography is worth knowing. The Vermont native served in World War II at the age of nineteen, was wounded in Northern France, and awarded the Purple Heart in 1944. After the war, he graduated from Harvard University and earned a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Texas in Austin. Flute lessons from Georges Laurent, Arthur Lora, and Marcel Moyse and recorder studies with Carl Dolmetsch helped develop Higbee’s musical talent. He was an active performer with many orchestras and chamber ensembles besides his musicological activities with many organizations including the American Recorder Society and American Bach Society. During its twenty-three seasons, Higbee’s Carolina Baroque not only presented its season in Salisbury but also released 32 CDs of those concerts. This has been an amazing achievement.