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Overlook the ensembles’ women for a moment, and all that was missing in the concert were powdered wigs, ruffles under the chin, and knee britches. Brent Wissick, cello professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, brought his two early music ensembles to an overflow crowd at Person Recital Hall for a lengthy exploration of Baroque music from Germany. The program was divided into two parts – the first given to J.S. Bach and son Carl Philipp Emmanuel and the second to German composers from the hundred years or so before J.S. Bach.
Samuel Scheidt and Michael Praetorius we’ve heard of, but Ludwig Senfl? Arnoldus de Bruck?
In addition to the variety of composers, these ensembles, consisting of undergraduate and graduate students and members of the Chapel Hill community, played on period instruments or reproductions of period instruments, adding to the feel of being in the audience for chamber music programs from the 15th through the 18th centuries. This also meant reflecting some of the shortcomings of such an endeavor as well.
Among the big plusses in the program were a handful of vocal pieces in the set by the Baroque Ensemble. Mezzo-soprano Maddy Frumkin, who also played baroque violin, gave a full-throated reading of an aria from Bach’s Cantata No. 54, “Just Resist Sin”; and soprano Shafali Jalota sang the “Exult” aria from Cantata No. 51, plus the “Glory” chorale and “Alleluia” from the same cantata, using a full and rich voice, especially in the frequent melismas. Vocal highlights, however, belonged to soprano Mahari Constan, whose pure and effortless singing was captivating in the “We Pray” recitative from the latter cantata, and to Aaron Thacker, whose lovely countertenor voice was near-perfect in the familiar “Have Mercy” aria from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Then, in the second half of the program, featuring the UNC Consort of Viols, tenor Mark Storey provided fine vocal lines in three madrigal-type story-telling songs from the period before the Bachs.
Some familiar music came out of the Bach set, not just the St. Matthew Passion aria, but also the opening movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat, S.1051, and the overture and gavotte from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1. in C, S.1066. The former is notable for its scaled-down scoring and lack of violins; the lead was taken by two violas, played here by Mason Allen and Stephanie Zimmerman, with strong support by cellist John Reardon. The latter, with a stately opening and four dance movements, received a fine reading in both the light and airy sections and in weightier portions. C.P.E. Bach, whose 300th birthday has been marked this year, was represented by the opening Allegro assai movement from the Concerto in A-minor for Cello and Strings, Wq 170, with Wissick as soloist. He showed considerable dexterity in handling the fingering requirements of the piece and had good support from cellist Alex Ullman.
Willemien Isinger performed well as baroque flute soloist in the sarabande movement from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2, in B-minor, S.1067, and violinist Robert Garbarz was a fine soloist in the allegro movement of Bach’s Concerto in A-minor for Violin and Strings, S.1041.
After a brief intermission in which the three musicians who shared harpsichord duties played Bach organ compositions, the Consort of Viols and the Sackbut Ensemble played music from the 15th and 16th centuries. As explained by Wissick, viols are cello-like instruments in size but also have lute-like attributes, although they are bowed and not plucked. The instruments, consisting of treble, tenor, and bass ranges, generally have six or seven strings and fretted necks. The sackbuts resemble trombones but with much smaller bells; a trio of sackbuts produces a full, rich brass sound, generally in the baritone range. (Another period instrument that was part of the mix was a long, valveless baroque, or natural, trumpet played by Ryan Petersburg during the Bach Cantata No. 51.)
These pieces in the second half of the program were short and consisted of music that was generally played in lower registers, with Storey’s tenor voice providing nice contrast in three pieces. Highlights were the trio of sackbuts playing Praetorius’ version of what has become “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” and the viols playing Senfl’s string version of a change-ringing of bells, “Das Glaut zu Speyer.”
Some of the shortcomings in staging such a program came from what might be the crankiness of the instruments. Pitches on the stringed instruments tended to go a bit over or under centering, for example, at least to those more accustomed to hearing today’s chamber and orchestral ensembles, and the natural trumpet proved to be troubling at times for Petersburg, perhaps similar to the difficulty young players might have with a French horn. Also, the program could have been shortened by about a half-hour without losing the opportunity to acquaint the audience with the variety of instrumental and vocal music that came out of Germany from the 15th through the 18th centuries. Nevertheless, this was quite an interesting evening, presented by musicians with an obvious passion for early music.