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The first Magnolia Baroque Festival must be counted as a total artistic success. The fruit of some fifteen months of careful planning by founders Glenn Siebert and Margaret Mertz, Executive Director of the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts, it fielded an extraordinary array of early music talent from across the nation. It was icing on the cake that so many had NCSA connections, and this emphasized the cultural value of the vital institution.
Because each concert was on a high level and explored unusual repertory, there was a frisson among the audience and the performers in Stevens Center for the June 25 concert. Both works on the program showcased the strengths of the festival.
In some years, I have heard Vivaldi's The Four Seasons performed as many as three times. I have heard routine readings, a bizarre one (by Red Priest), and a few that linger in the memory. Add the festival's performance to the latter! The interpretation was well within the standard, and the domination of the continuo colors, thanks to the use of a chamber organ and, more sparingly, a harpsichord, brought welcome variety. The warm sounds of period strings were welcome, as were the high standards of the playing and stylish realization based on scholarship. The solo playing of violinist Ingrid Matthews was astounding. Working entirely from memory and displaying freedom born of long experience, she enchanted us with a wide palette of tone color, precise attacks, seemingly effortless bowing... – the list seems endless. The give-and-take among the musicians was a delight to both eye and ear. Unlike some soloists who have seen too many rock groups, most of the music was communicated via her bow and fingerings. More flexible than Heifetz, she takes a firm stance and does not fling her body about, dervish-like. She turns slightly toward colleagues with whom her part is closely paired, partnering, for example, cellist Elisabeth Reed in an unusually prominent and co-equal duo in the "Winter" Concerto, that was typical of this brilliant evening. The organist was Stephen Smith.
Not since UNC-Chapel Hill had a residency with Joshua Rifkin that culminated in a performance of The St. Matthew Passion have I heard Bach at once as intimate and as thrilling as the concluding Magnificat in D, S.243. Instead of a sizeable chamber choir, two sets of five singers each were arrayed in front of the orchestra on either side of conductor Smith. On the right side of the stage were the soloists, called "vocal concertists" in the program: Maria Jette, soprano I, Olivia Vote, soprano II, Glenn Siebert, tenor, Brad Fugate, countertenor, and Jason McKinney, bass. The stage-left "vocal ripienists" were Nicole Alexander, soprano I, Cecilia Leitner, soprano II, John Kawa, tenor, Mary Siebert, alto, and Krassen Karagiozov, bass. All ten singers formed the full chorus; when the chorus "answered" the soloists, only the "ripienists" sang. The opening number, dominated by the bright sounds of three baroque trumpets led by Barry Bauguess, and with the timpani thundering away, was glorious. All of the singers had superb diction, projection, and pleasing timbres. Having the bass aria (No. 5) sung by McKinney was rather like hearing a Boris Godunov without the Russian accent – his was a towering performance. Tenor Siebert was in fine form for his melodious solos (Nos. 6 and 8). The solos and duos by the woodwind players were delightful. No. 10, "Sicut locutus est," was a marvelous and beautifully-blended trio for sopranos Jette and Vote and countertenor Fugate. The organ continuo was realized by John O'Brien. Smith directed a swift and dynamic performance that never sounded rushed. The small vocal forces allowed for extraordinary clarity of both vocal and instrumental lines. I cannot imagine a better performance.
It would be hard to conceive of a more successful outcome for a new music festival's first run. Another is planned for 2006. After that, the Magnolia Baroque Festival will occur in alternate years when there is no Boston Early Music Festival. This ought to make available a larger pool of musicians and an even larger audience.