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When CVNC asked me to attend the latest concert by the Baroque and Beyond ensemble, I was happy to accept. The group, led by founder and harpsichordist Beverly Biggs, plays their music on period instruments. These instruments can vary greatly, from those that are familiar, like the Baroque violin, to those that seem vastly unfamiliar, like the member of the lute family known as a theorbo. I was excited to see which instruments they would bring with them on this, their second concert of the season.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the theorbo, with which I was unfamiliar, along with the better-known baroque cello.
Including Biggs, the ensemble numbered six, including a well-known local soprano, Elizabeth Terry Joyner, who can be no stranger to anyone interested in Baroque music; her repertoire runs from the Renaissance to present day, and her knowledge and performances of Baroque music are legendary as well as international. Joyner was with the group specifically to perform George Frideric Handel. She sang four selections by the composer, as well as the selection by Antonio Vivaldi that titled this concert: "The Enamored Butterfly." She both opened and closed the concert.
The other four instruments were a Baroque violin, played by Allison Willet; the recorder, played by William Thauer; the harpsichord; and the theorbo, strummed by William Simms – who also gave an impromptu demonstration on the care and tuning of the instrument. A theorbo is a combined lute and bass instrument that looks like a lute with one very striking feature. The theorbo stands taller than most people: it has a neck that stretches well beyond that of a standard lute and a range that extends it well below that of a lute; this unique feature classifies it as one of many basso continuo, which give many musical numbers their required bass accoutrements. With the exception of the harpsichord, the theorbo was the most-often-used instrument in this concert. (Performers' bios may be read here.)
The program opened with Joyner singing Handel's "Lusinghe piu care," ("Sweetest Flattery") from the opera Alessandro, HWV 21. The composer tells us that sweet flattery is the "weapon of transient happiness." We remained with Handel as Biggs and Simms performed the composer's Suite for Harpsichord and Continuo, HWV 446, which consists of four movements: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Chaconne. It was not until the intermission that Biggs gave us the lowdown on this particular harpsichord. Rather than a simple one-keyboard instrument, this harpsichord is a dual-manual one, having a pair of keyboards and three sets of strings. Combined with the singular other instruments of the concert, the resulting music was blissful as well as challenging and varied.
Joyner again took the stage for Handel's "Va godendo" ("Little Brook") from Serse, HWV 40. The work is brief, consisting only of four lines, but the tone and color packed into it by the soprano were wide-ranging and sweet. The ensemble then changed composers for the only time in the first half; Antonio Vivaldi, fellow master with G. F. Handel, brought us "Sebben sente ardir le plume," the evening's title selection, taken from his Ercole su'l Termodonte, RV 10. The Enamored Butterfly is rapt by the very same thing as holds his doomed cousin, the moth, and his fate is very much the same. Nevertheless, this is a far more joyous and athletic work than any resembling a moth; Vivaldi lends his signature cascading trills and percussive passages, which were handled divinely by Joyner. Expanding the musicality of this piece, the cello was also very much in evidence, adroitly bowed by Barbara Krumdieck.
Part two of the concert gave us more Vivaldi, his Sonata in D, Op. 2, No. 11, written for violin and continuo. The lineup for this work included the theorbo, the harpsichord, the violin, and the cello. This piece has three passages: Preludio (Andante), Fantasia (Presto), and Gavotta (Allegro). The combination of multiple wide-ranging instrumentation with the Baroque violin made for an entertainingly rich presentation.
The next selection was written by a colleague of Vivaldi, Ignazio Sieber (1700-c.1757), his Sonata No. 2 for Recorder and Continuo. Thauer's recorder took center stage for this work, which consisted of four movements – Preludio, Corrente, Sarabande, and Allemanda – alternating between largo and allegro tempos. Sustained by the cello and the harpsichord, Thauer's recorder took full advantage of the arpeggios Sieber included in his work. Thauer was adept at controlling his breathing and a master of his fingering; the combined effect was a sustained passage that sounded as if it were spun out long beyond the performer's ability to play what a single breath would allow. But even knowing this performer's masterful technique, he was a man who was extremely busy until this work had concluded. His reward was a sustained and heartfelt ovation.
Joyner returned to the stage to conclude the concert with a pair of songs by Handel. The first was "Lascia ch'io pianga" ("Let me weep"), from Rinaldo, HWV 7a. With the exception of the recorder, the full ensemble played both numbers, this one being dirge-like with a text of only four lines; in contrast, the closing number, "Da Tempeste" from Giulio Cesare, HWV 17, is a richer, more lively, and joyous work that allowed us to witness the soprano's excellent control and range. "The boat, battered by the tempest, reaches the harbor..., And so a heart, when it finds peace again, gives itself over to rejoicing." Joyner easily conveyed this happiest of messages in her exceptional closing, bring to a satisfying conclusion a concert the likes of which one can hear no place else.
Baroque & Beyond performs one more concert this season at the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, in its bright new sanctuary located across the street from its predecessor, at 227 Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill. Concert date is Sunday, March 8, when the trio Zephyr will perform. Biggs and Thauer will be joined by Gail Ann Schroeder on the viola da gamba. Concert time is 3 pm.
Baroque & Beyond also wishes to extend an invitation to join them and over 100 early music artists at the 2020 North Carolina HIP (Historically Informed Performance) Festival, which takes place during the entire month of February, in venues all over the Triangle. The opening concert is Saturday, Feb. 1, at 3 pm, in the Hayti Heritage Center of Durham, performed by the Mallarmé Chamber Players, whose concert will feature (as has this event) the Baroque theorbo. A total of 16 concert events will take place in February, in all three points of the Triangle. You can see a complete list of concerts by going to hipmusicfestival.org; you can reserve tickets, anywhere from one to all 16 – for only $85! – by calling 919-560-2788. And note that B&B's own HIP concert akes place on Feb. 7 at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Durham, with music by Handel, Telemann, and Muffat. Donations at the door. 7:30 pm.
See the CVNC calendar for all upcoming events.
And finally, a note about the viola da gamba, not heard on this occasion but an instrument frequently used in these groupings: During the days when I was covering the popular music scene in Chapel Hill, I came across a group by the name of Glass. Glass was a trio, consisting of a guitar, a male vocalist, and a viola da gamba. It created music completely different from anything else in the popular music scene. I was very much chagrinned when, after catching this unique group only a handful of times, I learned that two of the group's three members had left the area. So, my contact with the viola da gamba might very well have ended, then and there. I am tickled that it has a very firm place in baroque music.
Beverly Biggs has provided the following explanatory notes on these two low string instruments: Gamba and cello are members of completely different string families: the violin/viola/cello family was favored in Italy (and to some extent in other European countries during the mid- and late-baroque, except in France); the viol family (many sizes, including viola da gamba) was favored in France. Our March program will include viols (both soprano viol and viola da gamba). The viols (all sizes) have 5-7 strings, frets, and the bow is played underhand. The baroque cello has four strings, no frets, and the bow is played overhand, like modern cello. Neither baroque cello nor viola da gamba uses an end pin.