The Masonic Temple was the host venue for this extraordinary Pan Harmonia concert by four of Asheville's finest chamber players. Harpsichordist Barbara Weiss, bassoonist Rosalind Buda, percussionist Byron Hedgepeth, and flutist Kate Steinbeck played an eclectic, even iconoclastic program of Baroque works and others having nothing whatsoever to do with the Baroque Era. Those who might have come expecting to hear an academic program of early music were surely amazed by the early music in contemporary arrangements (a few of them by Weiss), contemporary instruments (vibes and melodica), non-Western percussion (riqq and dumbek), and music by twentieth century composers (Piazzolla, Alex Wilder, Mark Glentworth, and Lou Harrison). Baroque music was the anchoring theme, so of course there was no false advertising, only one might characterize it as Bach with a twist, both shaken and stirred.
Each musician on the program has had superb academic training, and ample evidence of their knowledge of correct performance practice was heard throughout each work. Given the fact that the concert's programming transcended that of a traditional early music concert, one sensed their impatience with imposed limits and a collective, unrestrained impulse to experiment. The spirit of the concert recalled an even earlier age, pre-Baroque, before instrumentation was delineated within a score, when players would have performed chamber music with the instruments they had on hand, so long as their range fit the part.
The program began with "Calata ala spagnola" an animated short piece originally for lute in triple meter with catchy hemiolas by Joan Ambrosio Dalza (fl.1508), arranged for ensemble by Grant Herreid. Following this was the darker funeral song "Klaglied," the text and music of which were composed by Dieterich Buxtehude on the death of his father, performed instrumentally on flute, bassoon, vibes, and melodica, a modern invention with a small keyboard and air blown through a tube which activates a reed. This simple little instrument blended surprisingly well with the other winds and contributed to the work's mournful affect. The song's text ends with "Play songs of joy on celestial instruments," and served as inspiration for a spirited rendition of "Newcastle," one of the dance tunes from Playford's The English Dancing Master (1651).
Johann Fasch's (1688-1758) Sonata for Bassoon in C was a work of surprisingly lyrical writing for the solo instrument, expertly played by Buda and accompanied by Weiss. The lyrical Andante was followed by an Allegro Assai, exciting for its blistering passagework clearly designed as a virtuosic showpiece. Next was Henry Purcell's "Crown the Altar," composed with ground bass as a birthday tribute to Queen Anne and played on flute and vibes, followed by two works by Lou Harrison (1917-2003). "Ariadne Abandoned" featured Steinbeck's impassioned solo which sounded in stark contrast to the vibes' sparse part of either a few oscillating notes or a few chords. "The Triumph of Ariadne & Dionysos" unfolded as a free flowing, sensuous, and exotic-sounding flute solo constructed from seven different lines of music played at random against an array of sounds generated masterfully by Hedgepeth from the riqq (a kind of Arabic tambourine) or framed hand drum.
Weiss was featured on "Qui Passe," originally a street song from Padua then turned into guitar music to be danced to, but ultimately transformed by William Byrd into a magnificent variation set. Weiss is such an impressive player on her small, single-manual harpsichord I found myself wishing she had a larger instrument. All the figurations of the piece — scales, stair-stepping broken thirds, embellishments — were superbly controlled against the recurring harmonic progressions. Above all, the rhythmic vitality so essential to dance music undergirded not only this piece, but actually all the performances on this concert.
"Broken Silence" was another contemporary digression, the first movement of Vibraphone Suite No 1 by Mark Glentworth (b. 1960). Using 4 mallets, Hedgepeth beautifully voiced its jazz harmonies in this emotionally intense and technically challenging movement. To end the first half, "Laudate dominum in Sanctis ejus," a single liturgical piece with sections of varying tempi for tenor by Claudio Monteverdi was arranged by Weiss for flute, bassoon, and harpsichord and hand drum, the latter having several bars of its own solo voice in which to "praise the Lord."
After intermission came one of the high points of the afternoon, J.S. Bach's Trio Sonata No. 1 for Organ in E Flat, S/525. In this, Hedgepeth performed one of the melodic lines on the vibes against all the remaining parts on the harpsichord, Weiss subtly swinging the beat to Hedgepeth's more straight-forward delivery in a delectable role reversal of the performance styles associated with each instrument. Three Two-Part Inventions by J.S. Bach (No. 1 in C, No. 7 in E minor and No. 10 in G) were transformed from keyboard teaching pieces into charming duets on flute and bassoon, with each player independently ornamenting her respective line. Another high point was the Telemann Paris Quartet No. 12 in E minor, a six-movement suite which began with a French overture styled Prelude, followed by a series of dance-like movements identified by tempo. The next-to-last movement Distrait was the most unusual movement with its jaunty syncopations and scalar figures, and the last movement Modéré the richest in ensemble interplay. The characterization of all movements was richly varied and unflaggingly true to type.
Two other selections from Playford, "Gathering Peascods" and "Nonesuch" arranged by E.J. Jones were played on melodia (Weiss) and Scottish smallpipes (Buda) to the accompaniment of dumbek. The program closer was Astor Piazzola's "Milonga del Angel," played on harpsichord, bassoon, flute, riqq and hand drum. Piazzola surely didn't have this ensemble in mind, but no matter. The audience couldn't get enough of it, and responded with a rousing ovation.