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The campus bells were chiming 3 o’clock as I slipped into the intimate Person Recital Hall, a wonderful space for chamber music and small ensembles, and found that it was full to bursting, all seats taken, and at least a dozen standees, waiting for a well-filled program displaying the achievements of the early music activities at UNC, with the charming Brent Wissick as MC, conductor and occasional cellist.
The first half of the program was devoted to baroque music; most of it with the participation of a good-sized ensemble of period strings (nine violins, two violas, four cellos, a couple of gambas, and a violone, with harpsichord continuo). The program opened with the first movement of probably the most popular of the Corelli Concerti Grossi, Op. 6/4, giving listeners a chance to appraise the qualities of the ensemble – enthusiasm, an attractive, lively tone, but no better in intonation than one might expect – acceptable, but not particularly clean, either. I mustn’t be too critical, of course, for this is likely the only such ensemble for several hundred miles in any direction.
Two brief sinfonias (one-movement works) by Salomone Rossi led to an intermingling of Handel arias with movements from his Concerto Grosso Op. 6/4 in A minor. The three vocal soloists all acquitted themselves very well. First up was tenor Chris Nickell, with a liquid, relaxed tone and very good intonation, delivering the lyrical “Waft her Angels” from the oratorio Jephtha. Next came counter-tenor Ben Pruitt in the famous “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Rinaldo – he had a fine presence, and impressively big tone, particularly for this voice type. Finally we were treated to the singing of soprano Jessica Hiltabidle, with a more demanding allegro aria, “Ombre pallide” from Alcina, in which she demonstrated a very good technique in spinning out long lines with accuracy and expression. All ornamented the da capo repeats with style. The first half closed with ballet music from Alcina for the orchestra.
The second half might easily have made a separate concert, and indeed the two halves together took the audience to 5:00 PM, quite a long program for an afternoon of smallish selections. If the first half was the Baroque Ensemble, the second was “early music” ranging from a somewhat incongruous “Douce Dame” by Machaut (introduced by Wissick as a Machaut hit, it is perhaps better known as a hit from the New York Pro Musica, an ensemble defunct almost thirty years ago, but the most successful of American early music ensembles in the sixties) to a mélange of sixteenth-century repertoire. Hiltabidle returned for two lute songs by Dowland, the first of which revealed some technical flaws for improvement (keeping the support going at the end of the sung line), as well as a charming stage presence.
Hiltabidle also led a very fine vocal quartet (with Nickell, Pruitt, and Ryan Ebright, bass) in a performance of “Il bianco e dolce cigno” that was sufficiently more accomplished than the viol rendition that followed that Wissick might have considered omitting the latter (as well as the “Fors Seulement” (Ockeghem), with sour tuning that did not make a good impression). Alas, this was followed by a Bassano fantasia for sackbuts (Mike Kris, director) in which at least one of the players was lost during the entire piece (though arriving at a final cadence somehow). Part of studying such works is knowing when they are not ready for presentation to the public.
The four singers of the vocal quartet presented the lewd yet charming narrative of the famous “It fell on a summer’s day” by Campion in just the right tone – knowing, but not over the top. And to conclude, the viols and sackbuts presented a polychoral canzona by Giovanni Gabrieli, a pleasant conclusion to a rewarding afternoon.