This concert, entitled A Baroque Christmas, was an auspicious beginning for the Music @ Home 2013-14 season. The series, a joint venture by the Home Moravian Church and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts School of Music, will present four more concerts in the lovely historical Home Moravian Church. All but one will be free to the public. Moravians have a rich tradition of presenting music dating back to when they presented such contemporary composers such as J.S. Bach and Franz Joseph Haydn!
The performers were the UNC School of the Arts Cantata Singers and Chamber Orchestra under the direction of James Allbritten. Able vocal soloists were drawn from the all student chamber choir. Allbritten provided oral program notes from the podium drawing attention to the growth of music over the baroque period as well as important influences and relationships.
Dresden based Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) had been composing large choral works until he went to Italy in 1628 to study with Claudio Monteverdi who was founding opera. Upon Schütz's return, he composed such pieces as his sets Kleine geistliche Konzerte from which Allbritten selected “Sei gegrüßet Maria,” SWV 333, from the second set. This is a little scene, the Annunciation, a dialog between an Angel, sung ably by soprano Catherine Clark and bright-voiced Alicia Reid, as the hesitant Mary. A brief choral commentary caps the piece's ending with an extended “Alleluia.”
“Lo! How a Rose e'r Blooming” (1609) by Schütz's student Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) came next in a lovely a cappella performance. Allbritten said it was “old wine in new bottles,” because of its 16th century harmonization of a 14th century text.
The second famous chorale, “Zion hört die Wächter singen,” from the cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, S.140, by J.S. Bach, came next. The choir's diction and balance were superb, and the singers were ably supported by the student instrumentalists. The musical lines were clear and the phrasing was expressive and apt.
Allbritten spoke at length about the vital role played by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) in the development of violin technique in Bologna, Italy, and in the evolution of the concerto via the concerto grosso form with the showy players of the concertino set against the ripieno or larger group. The Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 6, No. 8 ("Made for Christmas Night"), is in five movements, generally alternating fast with slow, and with a concluding sixth marked “Largo, pastorale ad libitum.” Allbritten said this suggested the shepherds abiding their sheep by night and Corelli's student Handel modeled his Pifa or pastoral symphony in the Messiah after it. The able core trio sonata players or concertino consisted of Concertmaster Eva Wetzel, Second violin leader Tomas Woodall-Kim, and cellist Malcolm Dyer. Musical ensemble was of professional quality with very clear musical lines.
The high point of the concert came after intermission with the Gloria in D, RV.589, the more famous of two settings by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Allbritten speculated that the reference to “Domine Fili, unigenite, Jesu Christe” (O Lord, the only-begotten son of the father) in No. VII combined with the festive opening with pairs of trumpets had made this much better known than the composer's settings of the Magnificat or Song of Mary. Allbritten led his forces in a brilliant and lively performance with clear vocal lines and mostly successful instrumental accompaniment. Summer Williams and Nathan Robbins played the trumpet parts to perfection! Choral members took solo roles very ably. Sopranos Teresa Bonavita and Catherine Clark were featured in No. III, “Laudamus te.” No. VI, “Domine Deus” featured soprano Devann Boyd. Her singing was supported by a trio consisting of violinist Eva Wetzel, oboist Clare Miller, and cellist Malcom Dyer. Miller had the every oboist's worst nightmare, a reed going to pot in a very most important solo! She did all a professional could have done to wrestle something passable from the squawking. Mezzo-soprano Alden Pridgen was soloist in No. VIII, “Domine Deus, Angus Dei.” No. IX, “Qui tollis peccata mundi” was sung by mezzo-soprano Kate Sorrells.