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Human beings are explorative creatures, always searching out new things to experience and places to go. Perhaps that is one reason the UNC Baroque Ensemble and Viols Consort concert was so well attended. These two ensembles from UNC Chapel Hill's Department of Music, both directed by Brent Wissick, take every effort to recreate the experience of hearing and performing music from the Baroque, Renaissance, and medieval periods as it would have been heard and performed in those time periods. The musicians use period instruments, play in the style of the period, and perform pieces that were popular during those times. For the first piece on this concert program, Wissick even sported a powdered wig. The UNC Baroque Ensemble and Viols Consort take audiences to a completely different time period and, judging from the size of this concert's audience, people thoroughly enjoy the experience.
The UNC Baroque Ensemble, a group of about fifteen undergraduates, graduates, and community musicians, performed for the first half of the concert. A main feature was the group's performance of the entire Water Music Suite No. 1 in F Major by Handel. This composition was a wonderful selection as it showcased the differences in modern instruments and Baroque instruments while still providing a pleasant listening experience with its timelessly pleasant melodies. As the musicians began to play, one could easily imagine that he or she was back in the year 1717, dressed in elaborate clothing and relaxing on a barge to the joyful sounds of Handel's Water Music. The audience also enjoyed observing the visual and auditory differences of a Baroque ensemble from a contemporary one, such as the group's more mellow sound, the strings' absence of vibrato and lack of chin rests, and the appearance of a violine, an earlier form of the double bass. Despite Baroque instruments having more of a tendency to slip out of tune, the intonation of the group was, for the most part, accurate. The horn players struggled a bit more to find their center of pitch, but understandably so. As Wissick noted, the horns used were natural horns, an early form of French horn. The challenge of natural horns is their lack of valves — all pitch changes are left up to the embouchure of the players. The fact that the two horn players, Thomas Marshall and Tony Bird, maintained relatively accurate intonation without losing the energy of the piece was quite impressive.
Wissick made the clever decision to break up the lengthy Water Music selection with shorter pieces. After playing three movements of Water Music, UNC senior Jakob Hamilton took the spotlight with a lovely performance of Allegro from Handel's Organ Concerto in F, Op 4, No. 4. A double major in piano and organ performance and biology, Hamilton is one of the recipients of UNC's prestigious Morehead Scholarship, awarded to individuals with leadership, character, and a desire to learn. The deftness and confidence with which he played this upbeat concerto was certainly indicative of a talented and motivated individual. After five more movements of Water Music, the program indicated that some sort of "surprise" would be presented. The surprise was to honor Dean Terry Rhodes who has recently been appointed as Interim Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. The program featured a performance by none other than Rhodes' daughter, Susannah Stewart, who will be graduating in a week and going on to pursue voice study at Eastman School of Music. Along with oboist Martin Brinkley, Dean of the Law School, Stewart sang the aria, "Will the sun forget to streak," from Handel's oratorio Solomon, accompanied at the organ by her voice teacher at UNC Chapel Hill, Jean Fischer. Stewart's stunningly clear voice and flawless diction captured the hearts and emotions of the audience in attendance, as did Brinkley's sensitive playing of the oboe. The performance surely served its purpose of bestowing honor upon Rhodes. Following the final two movements of Water Music Suite No. 1, the UNC Baroque Ensemble concluded the first half of the program with Jean-Phillipe Rameau's Suite from Dardanus. Rameau's style is quite different from the style of other Baroque composers and added much needed variety to a program that was so heavily Handel. Hearty applause and even some cheers followed the final movement of the suite, a lively and cheerful tambourin.
A portion of the people departed during intermission allowing those who had been sitting on the floor, standing outside the door, and perching on windowsills to have a seat. Several members from the UNC Baroque Ensemble traded out their instruments for viols and several new musicians joined them to form the Viols Consort, a group of about twelve or so individuals, both musicians from the school and from the community. The group features viols of different sizes and ranges: trebles, tenors, and basses. The Viols Consort was joined for this concert by distinguished guest lutenist Laudon Schuett, who has a DMA in lute and who exhibited much knowledge and passion for the instrument during his performance. The Viols Consort's program was dominated by John Dowland. In fact, as Schuett pointed out, this program gave him the rare treat of performing all seven of the Lachrimaes in Dowland's Seven Tears, which were among the most popular songs of the seventeenth century; they make grief beautiful with elegantly mournful and longing melodies. The mellow sound of the consort of viols and the lutenist proved quite pleasant and also unique and the audience clung to the unfamiliar blend of sounds with interest. Wissick further explored Seven Tears by including the lute solo version called "Flow my Tears" as Schuett was joined by Stewart for an incredibly emotive performance of the song. In addition, Alma Coefman performed Jakob van Eyck's Variations on "Lachrime" on a Renaissance flute.
One highlight on the program was the demonstration of an instrument called an octochordon. Inspired by mention in 17th century texts of a mysterious eight stringed viol, two undergraduate students from UNC Chapell Hill, Corbin Bryan and Barron Northrup, applied for an Incubator Award and used the grant money to build an octochordon with the help of renowned viol maker and researcher John Pringle. The demonstration was an interesting break in the musically packed program, and it was inspiring to see two young men so passionate about preserving Baroque history.
The program ended with Dowland's "King of Denmark's Galliard," which Wissick described as a "downright delightful" piece and which brought smiles to many faces. The concert garnered a standing ovation, evidence that the two ensembles succeeded in creating an engaging and educational experience for the audience. In this busy day and age, few people are wholeheartedly willing to sit for two-hour concerts, which are becoming less common. Baroque music played on period instruments is not the most diverse of sounds and risks losing its novelty over the length of two hours. While a shorter concert length may have served this period concert performed in modern time, Wissick added variety to the program by alternating movements of longer workers with other pieces to keep the audience engaged. The audience thoroughly enjoyed journeying to a previous history with UNC Chapel Hill's Baroque ensembles, and the experience will not soon be forgotten.