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There was a time when people playing on what we now call "historically-informed instruments" were seen as freakish re-enactors. At first, it was enough to add a Zuckerman kit harpsichord to a tired old symphony orchestra for the “Christmas section” of Messiah. As things became better informed, the instruments, the interpretation, and the intonation (sometimes) got better, but the performance was still expected to be a re-enactment. No sense of humor was allowed, little musicianship was tolerated, and the sketchiest manuscript was holy writ of a certain inerrant nature. Happily enough, this is becoming, at least with some ensembles, a thing of the past.
The freshness of musicianship present whenever the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra plays is a delightful new interpretation. Director Frances Blaker and company play 17th and 18th century music on historically informed instruments bringing a commonsense approach to instrumentation. Blaker is a skilled orchestrator; when she has re-worked a composition, it has a wonderful freshness of sound. Blaker does not merely double violin lines with oboes, totally acceptable in the 18th century. She brings in the instruments at her command and adds them in a completely musical way, just as Händel transposed and adapted his arias to fit the available soloist.
A sense of whimsy in the choice of music is typical of Blaker's musical good humor. Instead of a bunch of summer pieces, Blaker has given us winter music, especially appropriate, as she observed, for performance in Winterville.
Telemann's Burlesque de Quixotte is a seven-movement piece of program music on interesting happenings in Cervantes's novel. It begins with an A-B-A ouverture with flute, recorders, and oboe doubling the strings. Quixote awakes to strings with powerhouse doubling by the oboes, attacks the windmills in long whirling lines that suggest the rotating windmills may be winning, sighs longingly on flute and violin, climbs onto his donkey with string heehaws, watches Rosinante gallop (actually a ponderous canter well suited to a lady), and, after a hugely spirited dance, falls suddenly asleep when his Xanax kicks in.
Selections from Antonio Caldara's Magdalene at the foot of Christ are some of the jolliest crucification music I've ever heard. Especially nice was the tennis-match violin duelling of Dan Wilson and Marti Perry. The two inner movements were arias executed in her inimitable style by Erica Dunkle.
Following the “ice theme,” next came Corelli's Christmas Concerto (Opus 6/8). Blaker's fresh orchestration was especially effective with several themes that were taken alternately by the recorders and solo violin played ably by Marti Perry.
A selection from Purcell's King Arthur, or The British Worthy, included the maestoso from Sinfonia Act III that served in the film The Draftsman's Contract to glue this enigmatic movie together. Then Blaker allotted the bass solo sung by the Cold Genius, “What Power Art Thou?” to soprano Dunkle, whose sparling diction made every shivering juttered word articulate; Dunkle left the stage with an effective 'I'm cold' gesture. The Grand Dance concluding this selection was Purcell at his most typical, with passing notes linking the melody together in long flowing chains; there were also the usual Purcellian surprise harmonies.
The evening ended with a beat-up old war horse that had been fed its oats and brushed up to be a spirited new charger, Vivaldi's “L'invero,” Winter from the Four Seasons. All I ought to say is, “David Wilson, solo violin!” I will add that his concertino duets with Barbara Blaker Krumdieck were equally delicious.
This concert will be repeated on Sunday, August 19, in St. Stephen's Church, Durham - for details, see the sidebar. If you can be there, don't miss it!