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For a while there, the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild's series, Sights and Sounds on Sundays at the NC Museum of Art, was a bit short on "sights." Despite the overall high quality of the music, tie-ins with the visual arts were often superficial at best. For Sunday afternoon's concert, Seraphim Musica, a baroque violin, cello and harpsichord trio, together with vocal and instrumental guest artists, made a concerted effort to accompany each musical offering with a slide from the museum's collection that matched as closely as possible the date and spirit of the composition. Not exactly Art History 101, but then, this audience didn't come for a lecture.
The ensemble consisted of well-known musicians from around the Triangle - some in less familiar roles, including Alfred Sturgis, featured here as countertenor rather than conductor, and NCS principal percussionist Rick Motylinski as lutenist - harpsichordist Elaine Funaro, Baroque cellist Stephanie Vial, Baroque violinist Belinda Swanson, mezzo-soprano Carol Ingbretsen and tenor Roby Daniels. Mixing and matching in various permutations and combinations, they performed a program of 16th and 17th century vocal and instrumental music by a variety of not-exactly-household-names composers, as well as one of the zillion trio sonatas by Georg Philipp Telemann and the Variations on La Folia by Arcangelo Corelli.
As usual, this review would go on for far too long with a recitation about each piece, but here are some highlights. We were reminded again what a welcome addition Swanson is to the Triangle roster of musicians, especially early musicians. Her performances for the entire program were tasteful, technically almost perfect and in tune for the virtuosic displays required for Dario Castello's Sonata Seconda and the Folia variations. Sturgis, too, was a trip for those who know him only as a stick waver. There are actually two distinct kinds of countertenor, high tenors and natural baritones singing falsetto. Sturgis is of the latter type with a clear bell-like tone without the depth and power associated with the natural tenors. But he knows what he's doing both technically and musically, especially in his solo, "Seigneur, Hélas" by Gabriel Bataille.
In addition to the informative oral program notes from the stage, the performers provided both translations of the vocal works and a list of the artworks accompanying each piece. Because they envisioned their performance as accompanying a virtual walk through the museum's galleries, this list was most welcome for those who would like to revisit the experience in part by going back to view the original works of art. In fact, a reprise of the gallery walk would certainly be in order, since the projectionist was the only member of the crew not on the ball, missing slide changes for the entire duration of the first half of the program.
As in any gallery walk, the program took a detour to a side-room with a 20th century composition, "Two Movements for Solo Harpsichord" by Tom Robbin Harris (b.1944). The work pays homage to the Baroque, but with a decidedly jazzy twist.
For the most part, the ensemble put in "musicologically correct" performances. Swanson's violin and Vial's cello were Baroque-era instruments restyled, strung and tuned to their original state with a low A = 415.. In the desire to showcase the whole ensemble, however, Vial and Funaro added faux continuo parts to 16th century madrigals and chansons by Cipriano da Rore, Giovanni Bassano and Claude le Jeune composed before there was such a thing as a basso continuo. But then, in the true spirit of that period, performers had more improvisatory leeway and did not necessarily adhere to the written score as rigidly as we tend to demand today.
This area continues to be lagging in early music. With first rate musicians both freelance and within the universities, we'd like to hear more of it, however ad hoc the ensembles may be.