Performances with a lot of excerpts and composers are the most challenging to review and only the delight and unbuttoned fun of this second Magnolia Baroque Festival concert outweighs the dread of wrestling with details. This 5th season program was entitled “Ground.” The Groves Dictionary of Music defines Ground as, “A  melody, usually in the bass and hence often called a ground bass, recurring many times in succession, accompanied by continuous variation in upper parts.” This was provided at the top of three-page biographies of the program’s composers. There was a good turnout of music lovers in gorgeous Watson Hall and they were treated to the full roster of festival professional players along with four students from the first members of the Magnolia Baroque Festival Institute.

A Chaconne in C from Trois pour la coucher du Roy by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87) opened the concert. The Italian-born composer became the leading composer of the French baroque style in Louis XIV’s court. Violinist Ingrid Matthews held a virtuosic dialogue with oboist Debra Nagy. Their well-blended or aptly contrasted sound was supported by harpsichordist Joseph Gascho, cellist Brent Wissick, and the clear, mellow, natural sound of John Lenti on baroque guitar as continuo.

Violinist Julie Andrijeski and violist Karina Fox joined Matthews for the “Passacaille” from the Sonata in G for Two Violins, HWV 358 by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759). The continuo support was given by Gascho, and Wissick, still on cello, joined by Tracy Mortimore on double-bass. The players produced a full, rich sound and the ground sounded like the famous “La Folia” theme wading through cold molasses. The clear, warm sound of Joseph Gascho’s harpsichord was a constant pleasure in “Prelude and Chaconne” by Nicola Matteis (1670-98). Originally scored for two violins, Gascho used his own transcription for keyboard. His trills were delightful and his articulation in the fast passages was clear and immaculate.

The well-known “La Folia” theme seemed to haunt the robust sound of “Bassagalia” from Sonata III by Romanus Weichlein (1650-1706). Gascho switched to a dark-toned chamber organ while Lenti took up a deeply resonant theorbo and was joined by cellist Wissick and bassist Mortimore to form the continuo. The melodic line was taken by violinists Andrijeski and Matthews paired with violists Fox and John O’Brien. The same violinists, violists, and continuo ensemble were joined by baroque trumpeters Barry Bauguess and his student Joelle Monroe for the Chaconne by Philip Jacob Rittler (c.1637-1739). The valveless brass trumpets were played with good intonation and gleaming tone.

Lenti used his quirky humor to introduce “Cumbees” from the Codice Saldivar No. 4 by Santiago de Murcia (1673-90) for solo baroque guitar. What a pleasure to hear the pure unamplified sound of a guitar in an intimate space! Lenti may have a light-hearted persona but his musicianship was solid while being married to a sense of improvisation. This is a quality that infused all of the evening’s performances.

Intermission was preceded by a brilliant performance of “Zefiro Torna” (Zephyr returns) from the 8th book of madrigals, entitled Madrigali guerrieri ed amorosi (Madrigals of War and Love) by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). The composer marks the transition between the Renaissance style and the Baroque style having combined the older polyphony with the new basso continuo technique. His opera L’Orfeo is one of the earliest still in the repertory. The voices of tenor Glenn Siebert (festival founder and director) and soprano Jeanne Fischer blended perfectly in this vocal gem. Their diction was clear and precise and their intonation was pure. Their choices of ornamentation were tasteful and well-executed.

The opera Platée of Jean-Phillippe Rameau (1683-1764) involves Jupiter’s deception of Juno by pretending to be infatuated with Platée, an ugly cross between a toad and a water nymph who rules over the frogs and insects of a pond. While it was one of the most highly regarded of the composer’s operas during his lifetime, current sensibilities find Jupiter’s callous deception of Platée too cruel. The Chaconne comes from Act III, Scene 3 and combines “mock pomposity is broken by absurd high-jinks passages of skips of octaves and elevenths” according to Culthbert Girdlestone in Jean-Philippe Rameau: His Life and Work.  Oboist Nagy joined violinists Andrijeski and Matthews for the melodic line supported by bassist Mortimore, harpsichordist Gascho, cellist Wissick, and guitarist Lenti. The violins were by turns mourning and scurrying. The 1987 Spoleto Festival USA staged the opera in Dock Street Theater in a fine production conducted by Grant Llewellyn, now music director of the N.C. Symphony. A vivid production of Platée conducted by Marc Minkowski is available on DVD and the chaconne serves a hilarious ballet of mock-wedding guests.

No translation was needed for “The Plaint” (O let me weep) from the semi-opera The Fairy Queen of Henry Purcell (1659-95) which featured the clear, pure soprano of Jeanne Fischer. The lament, from Act V, gives the singer ample scope for a broad palette of sorrow and Fischer’s performance was most moving. Andrijeski gave a virtuoso performance of the prominent violin solo ably supported by harpsichordist Gascho, with Lenti on theorbo and Wissick on viola da gamba.

Ingrid Matthews “let her hair down and pulled out the stops” for a brilliant performance of two Divisions for Violin, “Paul’s Steeple” by the well-known Anonymous and “John come kiss me now” by Thomas Baltzar (1630-1663). Her sense of rhythm was flawless, and her bowing and fingering were spectacular in road runner paced passages. The works combined the atmosphere of a hoe down and a lively folk dance. She was ably supported by Lenti’s guitar.

All of the instrumental forces were set up in the left third of the stage, joined by student violinist Nathan Giglierano and cellist Oliver Weston. They played a “La Folia” compilation on “Faronell’s Ground,” by the lesser known Various, to accompany the stylish dancing of Paige Whitley-Bauguess. She was dressed in an elegant period costume and played castanets as she combined proper gestures with period choreography.

The audience was rewarded with a familiar encore, for once heard in a less bloated  instrumentation, the infamous Canon in D of Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706).