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On December 7, Hill Hall Auditorium was packed with friends, relatives, townspeople and other music lovers for one of the most satisfying concerts of baroque music that this critic has heard at the University of North Carolina in many years. Like Mayflies, members of the long-hibernating Ensemble Courant reappeared, this time using modern (as opposed to "original") instruments but playing in diverse combinations. Unlike some of the concerts of their waning series, these performances showed evidence of careful preparation. The first half of the program consisted of two very different Vivaldi concertos. In the second half, an expanded Ensemble Courant was joined by three vocal soloists and the Carolina Choir, all under the firm direction of Susan Klebanow.
The Vivaldi concerti were a welcome change from the narrow programming that usually involves either the "Four Seasons" or one of the named concertos such as "Il gardellino" or "La tempesta di mare." The first piece was the Concerto for Three Violins, Strings and Basso Continuo, RV.551, played by Richard Luby, Tasi Matthews and Jose Francisco Bastardes. The basso continuo often consisted of harpsichordist Elaine Funaro and the ubiquitous double bassist, Rob Link. The opening Allegro featured varied dynamics and quick turns of phrasing. There was often a marked contrast between two or more of the three solo parts. Sometimes the first two played in lovely unison in complete contrast to the exuberant third, and elsewhere there was an attractive solo while the other two instruments were paired for short commentary. A gently flowing tempo characterized the following Andante, in which the second violin accompanied the third with lute-like pizzicatos. The arpeggiated presto finish to the Andante was represented by a repeated figure played by the first violin and basso continuo. A lively, fast Allegro, featuring all three soloists in complex dialogues and combinations, brought the piece to a rousing conclusion that was rewarded with enthusiastic applause.
Next came one of Vivaldi's sophisticated and rarely-heard "Concerti da Camera," the Concerto in D Major for Flute, Oboe, Violin, Bassoon and Basso Continuo, P.207 (or, more usefully, RV.94). In Vivaldi's and Bach's days there was considerable freedom and flexibility in the choice of solo instruments. For example, in the Ryom catalog, RV.92 has a solo part that can be taken by either bassoon or cello, RV.104 can be played by either flute or violin, and the listing for RV.94 provides for recorder or flute. Due to the illness of the scheduled bassoon soloist, the players had to improvise, and Stephanie Vial had quite a workout as she realized the woodwind part on the cello. (I learned some of this after the concert by talking with the players.) Curiously, there were several points during the performance when it sounded as if the absent bassoon was actually present! The ever-refined flutist was Brooks de Wetter Smith, joined by oboist Blair Tindall and violinist Richard Luby. Double bassist Link had a more complex part than usual, and Funaro played the harpsichord. The Allegro featured a droning, insistent rhythm, elegant woodwind playing and independent and prominent roles for both low strings. The lovely Largo featured a familiar theme in the flute above a bass line formed by violin and cello without the harpsichord. A fast violin solo, again with a familiar theme, opened the concluding Allegro. Both woodwinds soon joined for this very original scoring that featured interesting instrumental color. An independent line for the oboe was especially beautiful, and the unique modulations in the bracing Allegro were particularly attractive. According to CD annotator Vladimir Kubicek, "The... works labeled as chamber concertos (RV.87-108) are very similar in formal and stylistic terms to [Vivaldi's] usual concertos for one or more soloists, string orchestra and basso continuo. These compositions. made it possible to cultivate the concerto genre within the confines of the aristocratic salon or in the homes of the music loving middle class."
Both of these concertos have been recorded a couple of times although the CDs that may be hard to find. I hope other small ensembles will consider treating us with more of these in the future.
After intermission, a greatly expanded Ensemble Courant of some twenty-three players took the stage for what Simon Heighes (writing in the Oxford Composer Companion: J.S. Bach, ed. Malcom Boyd) says was the "largest orchestra for church music available to [the composer] at the time." They were joined by the Carolina Choir, soprano Penelope Jensen, mezzo-soprano Mary Gayle Greene, tenor Frank Kelley and bass-baritone James Bumgardner for the concise and festive Magnificat in D, S.243. Klebanow led an exemplary performance, well paced and phrased with care. The diction of the choir was outstanding, as was that of all the soloists. The opening featured the rousing brass of the three trumpets and a springing rhythm. Greene was firm voiced with a dark sound in the first solo aria. Jensen's many vocal virtues were on display in the second aria, accompanied by oboe d'amore, bassoon and a subtle organ continuo played by Thomas Warburton. Bumgardner displayed a firm, light bass-baritone voice in the aria "Quia fecit," which had a familiar theme and featured accompaniment by cellist Brent Wissick, double bassist Rob Link and organ continuo provided by Warburton. Greene's voice blended well with Kelley's in their duet, and the latter displayed a moderately light tenor voice with a wide dynamic range in the aria "Deposuit potentes." Soprano Ashley Kerr, a member of the chorus, joined Jensen and Greene for the lovely trio "Suscepit Israel." Blazing brass and percussion accompanied the fervent final chorus that was rewarded by a prolonged and well earned standing ovation.