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Since 1988, Carolina Baroque, the Salisbury-based period instrument ensemble, has been one of the major players on the chamber music scene in North Carolina, thanks to its indefatigable Music Director, Dale Higbee. His energy level and commitment to the music he loves — Handel, chiefly, with Bach running a close second — are beyond compare, and since he retired from his thoroughly respectable day job, the lion's share of his time has been devoted to his truly remarkable ensemble. We should all be so fortunate, giving our time and talents to what we love best! And since many other "original instrument" bands have fallen by the wayside, Carolina Baroque is worth celebrating even more than ever.
On Sunday afternoon, March 18, Higbee brought his artists to Greensboro's lovely West Market Street United Methodist Church, where a superb Dobson-Rosales organ dominates the sanctuary, visually and otherwise. As it happens, Carolina Baroque's current keyboardist is Susan Bates, who doubles as Organist and Music Associate of this church, so one might describe her artistic engagement as a marriage, of sorts, made in heaven, more or less. She launched the program with a spellbinding performance of one of Old Bach's most stirring and dramatic chorale preludes, on "O Lamm Gottes unschuldig" ("O Lamb of God, pure and holy"), S.656. This was admirably set up by the artist, who explained the varied treatments of the tune, and then admirably realized in ways that may have startled some in attendance: for sure, Bach's preludes aren't often given such virtuoso treatment, nor are they generally accorded such undivided attention by their hearers, especially when they serve as settling-down music before formal services.
There followed an excellent introduction to what's different about "period" instruments, with their softer, gentler sound, their lower tensions and pitches, and their radically different articulations and subtleties. This presentation led to a complete performance of Bach's Second Orchestral Suite, to use its common title; in fact, it is chamber music, so those bloated full-orchestra readings many of us recall are anachronisms of the Victorian era. Here it was played by six artists – Higbee, whose "sixth flute" is a recorder of the sopranino ilk, a string quartet (John Pruett and Greg Pannell, baroque violins, Marian Wilson, baroque viola, and Barbara Blaker Krumdieck, baroque cello), and Bates, who used the church's single-manual Richard Kingston harpsichord. Those who hadn't heard this wonderful music on "original instruments" were treated to something truly extraordinary, and part of what made it so special was the superior musicianship and technical skill of the performers. There were here and elsewhere during the course of the generous program virtually no perceptible lapses in intonation or ensemble, which is in and of itself remarkable testimony to the superior group Higbee has created.
The first half ended with a rare — for Carolina Baroque — excursion into Mozart's time, but truth to tell, the very early concerto performed (Keyboard Concerto in D, K.107/1) was a "student" work, a pastiche based on sonatas by J.C. Bach, with enhancements and cadenzas by the youthful master. This music turns up from time to time, and recordings are of course available, but what stood out in Greensboro were the parts that are actually by Mozart — the cadenzas; these sparkled in ways that seemed strongly contrasted with the rest of the piece, despite Mozart's idiomatic transcriptions.
A short intermission led to a second half forged in heaven, as some surely would avow. Soprano Teresa Radomski, long a mainstay of Wake Forest University and of Carolina Baroque, gave a mini-recital of compelling beauty, starting and ending with Bach cantata excerpts. Like the rest of the program, these were accompanied with one-to-a-part forces, facilitating balance and clarity, too, and making it possible to savor every word and phrase and the many exquisite shadings the solo vocalist brought to her performances. The ABA arias were varied as we know they must be, and the vocal lines themselves, whether high or low, were radiantly projected. The handsome program contained translations only, but the selections offered involved relatively short texts so it was easy enough to follow along.
Things resumed with the aria "Kommt, ihr angefochtnen Sünder" ("Come, you sorely tempted sinners") and the closing chorale from Cantata 30; this aria is an all-embracing invitation to salvation, with a comparably warm orchestral introduction, and even stones would have been enticed, had stones been present.
Carolina Baroque then gave the second of two first performances in NC of two verses from a recently-discovered Bach aria, "Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn' ihn" ("Everything with God and nothing without Him"), S.1127. It's hardly surprising that Higbee would have latched onto this and delivered it to his audiences: although there's nothing musty about this ensemble, scholarship in depth lurks behind every bar line!
Two grand Handel arias found Radomski in superior form. From Act I, s.3 of Teseo came "De serbate, oh giusti Dei!" ("Save, O just gods, that life for which I live..."), and from Act II, s.6 of Rodelinda came the title character's great "Ritorna, oh caro" ("Return, my dearest, with comfort and hope for my heart...). Here again the singer brought the words and music to vivid life, transforming herself and transporting her audience to far-away places. The grand finale was the aria "Süßer Trost" ("Sweet comfort: My Jesus comes") and short concluding chorale from Cantata 151. In it and the other portions of the second half, the instrumentalists had plenty to do, and they did it gloriously, making a memorable seven-way partnership.
All of Carolina Baroque's concerts are recorded, so this one will be available in due course for those who heard the program in Greensboro or two days earlier in Salisbury.
The ensemble's season ends on April 13 with a Salisbury concert devoted to music by Handel with additional works by Albinoni and Domenico Scarlatti. For details, see our Western calendar,