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Period-music concerts (historically informed performance) means that the notes that make up the music we hear are played in the manner and style that was common practice when the music was written. Ornamentation, phrasing, dynamics, and all sorts of other details can differ from period to period, even in a composer's lifetime. The other element of period-music concerts is the use of period instruments, still relatively rarely-heard because of the comparative rarity of such instruments and their value. Most often, therefore, performing artists use newly-made instruments constructed on historical models or more recent instruments that have been retrofitted for period performance. The difference in the sound of an historically-informed performance and a performance employing modern instruments and modern practices can be quite significant.
Baroque & Beyond produces period-music concerts under the nonprofit umbrella of Preservation Chapel Hill. The Chapel Hill series consists of three concerts per season, focusing on music of the baroque, classical, and early romantic eras. The opening concert of the 2013-14 season, titled "Vanish ev'ry Torment," featured music of the baroque, and was given in the Chapel of the Cross.
The performing artists included the following: James F. Weaver, baritone, a frequent performer with many of the finest orchestras and chamber ensembles; Florence Peacock, soprano, well-known as a soloist in oratorio, recitals, and opera; William Thauer, baroque oboe, heard in period performance ensembles across the country; Andrew Bonner, violin, an adjunct violin teacher at Duke and Elon Universities; Robert Garber, violin, a student at UNC/CH who is developing a specialty in baroque violin and baroque viola; Joey O'Donnell, viola, who plays with the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra and lives and teaches in the Triangle; Robbie Link, viola da gamba, who teaches double base, cello, and viola da gamba and is a frequent performer in the Triangle; and Beverly Biggs, harpsichord, who is also artistic director of Baroque & Beyond.
The opening selection was the Trio Sonata in F by Johann Gottlieb Graun (1703-71), written for oboe, violin and basso continuo. The work is divided into four sections. The first movement, marked Larghetto, offers a lilting melody with interesting interplay between the solo instruments. A spritely Allegro is followed by a gentle Siciliano that is pleasantly pastoral in mood. The closing Allegro is lively and playful and ends with a bit of surprise ending.
When Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) accepted the post of cantor at Leipzig, he set as a goal the creation of a complete catalogue of cantatas for three years of the church lectionary calendar. He ended up writing some 300, of which 200 survive to this day. They vary greatly in form and instrumentation and represent what many would agree is among the most exemplary achievements in musical history.
Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, S.32, is an example of a dialogue cantata employing the approach of a conversation between Jesus and the soul. The cantata opens with a fine soprano aria introduced by a plaintive and intricate oboe line, later picked up by the soprano. The soul is momentarily distressed by the absence of Jesus. After a recitative the bass, representing Jesus, sings a magnificent aria with a virtuosic violin accompaniment. The next recitative is a duet between the soul (soprano) and Jesus (bass) that continues into the final aria, which celebrates the disappearance of all troubles, crying, and pain with Jesus' constant presence. This gorgeously-tuneful duet was sung beautifully by Peacock, a bright and resonate soprano, and by Weaver, a warm and rich bass. The closing chorale – joy itself! – had the effect of making me want to sing along – to be a part of it. From continuo to solo, from beginning to end, this was an outstanding performance.
After a brief intermission we heard the Trio Sonata, Op. 1, No. 1, for violin, viola & basso continuo by Dietrich Buxtehude (c.1637-1707). In 1705 the twenty-year-old Johann Bach walked about 250 miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude play the organ and then stayed nearly three months to learn from him. Buxtehude was one of the most significant composers in Germany during the early baroque era. The opening movement of the Trio Sonata is marked Vivace/Lento and consists of a gently-flowing melody folded over and into a meditative passage. The Allegro/Adagio has a spritelier theme that ends with a slow, quiet phrase. The Andante is a gentle pastoral section, and the Grave/Presto opens with fanfares leading to a dirge-like section and concludes with a playful, buoyant tune.
Weaver returned to the stage and gave a stunning performance of two arias for bass and basso continuo, In "Bist du, der mir helfen soll" (No. 3 of S.186), Bach uses unpredictable leaps and unexpected cadences to express the uncertainty spoken of in the text; and in "Das Brausen von den rauhen Winden" (No. 6 of S.92), the composer depicts the storms of life with stormy music conveyed in virtuoso passages for both the soloist and the basso continuo.
Ending the concert was the Concerto in F, TWV 42:F4, by Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), one of the most prolific composers in history. His works, in all sorts of forms and styles, contain marvelously-inventive melodies, harmonies, and techniques. It was a challenge even to catalogue all his works in a coherent manner. The Concerto in F for oboe, violin, and basso continuo, has four movements: Grave, Vivace, Adagio, and Allegro. The main feature of the work is the clever conversational approach between the two solo instruments. There is throughout a back-and-forth between the oboe and the violin in which it sometimes seems like each is arguing its own point, sometimes coming to an agreement, sometimes playful, and sometimes more serious – all to the delight of the audience.
There are two more concerts in this series, the next of which is January 26; for details, click here. Additional information about Baroque & Beyond can be found here. The website offers musician biographies, photographs, and information about period instruments and performance practices.