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It was a warm Spring day in Chapel Hill. The outside temperature reached 70° by concert time. Adding a standing-room-only audience at Person Recital Hall is a prescription for intonation problems with stringed instruments. Solution: tune early and often, and make music nonetheless.
UNC Prof. Brent Wissick led the two ensembles, the UNC Baroque Ensemble and Consort of Viols, through an intriguing program by composers well-known and not so well-known. These musicians are excellent amateurs, in the best sense of that word, with a genuine love for the literature and with much fine playing and singing. The first half was performed by the Ensemble; the second half was performed by the Consort.
The UNC Baroque Ensemble – consisting of 14 string players, two keyboard/continuo players, a trumpeter playing the ‘natural trumpet’ in D (which, with no valves, plays only the notes in the harmonic series of D), and three vocal soloists – performed the concert’s opening half, beginning with “Grosser Herr und starker König,” and “Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben” by J.S. Bach. Although the lower strings predominated in these two Christmas Oratorio arias, occasionally covering the lower registers of bass Ryan Ebright and tenor Wesley Miller, the singers did justice to Bach’s vocal lines, with Ebright’s added ornamentation in the repeated “A” section of his aria and Miller’s spinning-out of his extended melismatic lines. While Ryan Petersburg’s Naturtrompete performance was not flawless, we must remember that Robert Shaw had to audition 29 players before finding the principal trumpeter for his tour of Bach’s B Minor Mass. It was a treat to hear this aria with the trumpet for which it was composed. The arias were separated by a performance of Samuel Scheidt’s Canzona on the Bergamasca.
Next, from Bach’s Suite No. 1 in C, S.1066, heavy downbeats on each bar burdened the Menuet, but the more graceful Gavotte brought relief. Solid playing by all was evident in Telemann’s curious "“Ancient Germans/Modern Germans" and "Ancient Swedes/Modern Swedes" from the Suite in G, Nations: Ancient and Modern, with the ancients portrayed as stodgy and the moderns as lively. The final movement, "Les Vielles femmes" (The old women) depicts elderly females by sighing half-steps seeming to have nothing in keeping with the rest of the suite.
In the Sonata in A minor, Op. 1, No. 3, one of Buxtehude’s first published works, we heard excellent playing by violinist Robert Garbarz, Prof. Wissick on the 7-string bass viol, and harpsichordist Stewart Engart. The sonata’s curious ending, slipping into a Purcellian chromaticism, is always surprising. The three musicians deserved the vigorous applause.
The opening half concluded with the afternoon’s best-known work, the Air from Bach’s third Orchestral Suite, S.1068. Wissick’s tempo was perfect; the performance would have been improved only by the addition of some melodic ornamentation in the first violin part at the repeats.
While the Ensemble’s half consisted entirely of Baroque music, the Consort half included Renaissance music. The first three works brought fine singing by tenor Miles Herr, soprano Magdalen Kadel (who put down her tenor viol and sang from her place in the consort), and countertenor Ben Pruitt. Herr’s clear and well-focused voice excelled in Johann Walther’s Tenorlied setting of the chorale “Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh’ darein.” Kadel’s upper register carried well above the viol consort’s accompaniment in Buxtehude’s brief but moving lament on his father’s death, “Klaglied (Musz der Tod denn auch entbinden).” Heinrich Bach managed to make music, as his more famous cousin did in later years, from a weighty Pietistic lyric (“Oh, if I only had enough water in my head that my eyes were springs of tears, so that I could bewail my sin night and day”). Pruitt and Garbarz joined forces in a beautiful performance of “Ach, dass ich Wasser’s gnug hatte,” marred only by the continuo organ’s broad tone, unusually heavy for an organ of its type, producing a ‘fat’ sound which diminished the clarity of the work’s texture.
Schein’s Paduana and Galliarda were the audience’s first chance to hear the Viol Consort on its own; the dance movements were beautifully and stylistically played. It was followed by one of Heinrich Schütz’s Symphoniae sacrae I, Op.6 (SWV 269), which Prof. Wissick jokingly introduced as “yet another pathetic piece” because of its text: in "Fili mi, Absalon," King David mourns the death of his son (“Would that I had died for you!”). While the score calls for four sackbuts (the predecessors of modern trombones), only two were available today and, in the best tradition of Schütz’s Thirty Years’ War performance problem solutions, two of the sackbut parts were played by bass viols. While bass Ebright sang well, he should not be afraid to let more emotion show the depth of anguish represented so well by this setting of the text.
Music of Swiss-born composer Ludwig Senfl, a contemporary of Martin Luther, made its first appearance here with what Wissick described as a piece so bawdy that he couldn’t ask an undergrad to sing it, enlisting grad student tenor Chris Bowen for the task. Bowen acquitted himself well, bringing “Im Maien” to life with an energetic reading and fine voice. Three other Senfl works closed the program: a quodlibet coupling the folk-tune “Elslein” with “Es tage vor dem Walde”; three settings of “Ich stund an einem Morgen”; and, in the spirit of the season, “Ich weiss nit,” with its “Ho! Ho! Ho!” refrain. Tenor Herr’s voice sparkled again in the first of the “Ich stund...” settings; the second was decorated by Belinda Novik’s agile counterpoint on her tenor viol; and the final setting danced with its syncopated rhythms surrounding the canonic melody.
While Prof. Wissick’s verbal introductions were helpful, a program like this deserves written program notes containing complete texts/translations of the vocal works and information about the lesser-known composers. UNC has an enviable reputation for an outstanding musicology program: why not enlist some upperclass and/or graduate students in that discipline to practice their craft by writing notes?