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The rare joy of hearing a recital by a renowned countertenor and an acclaimed keyboard artist was made possible by the North Carolina HIP Music Festival, now in its fifth biennial presentation. From January 31 to February 28, eight different organizations in 17 different events will present performances on Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical instruments using historically informed performance practice.
This concert, at the beautifully appointed sanctuary of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Durham, featured countertenor Nathan Medley and Jennifer Streeter, organ and harpsichord. Medley, a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, has emerged in recent years as one of the leading younger-generation countertenors. He has performed throughout the U.S. with his early music ensemble, Echoing Air, and has worked with Peter Sellers, Gustavo Dudamel, John Harbison, John Adams, and others.
Streeter has performed throughout the U.S. and Europe with critically acclaimed early music ensembles. She holds master's degrees in harpsichord and recorder from the Early Music Institute at Indiana University. Originally from Europe, she now calls Cary, North Carolina, home.
The program was titled "Drama in the Church! German Sacred Song Meets Opera." This gave a pretty good idea of what the program was about: as we moved into the 16th century, German composers in church related positions wrote religious devotional songs that were influenced by Italian opera, largely through the phenomenon that was San Marco in Venice.
There were three selections by the first German master to attract world-wide attention, Heinrich Schütz, who was born 1585, one hundred years before J.S. Bach. He was a master at text painting, and most of his chorales and motets were settings of scripture texts, often descriptive passages. The opening piece for this concert was Schütz's chorale "Bringt her dem Herren," based on selected psalms. It opened with a crescendo from barely a whisper to full voice and ended a series of repeated "Allelujas," marvelously balanced between the vocal and instrumental presentation and demonstrating the dynamic range of the countertenor vocalization.
Next, a cantata by Georg Heinrich Bümler (1669-1745), written in Italian, allowed the emotional impact of the warm and intimate falsetto voice. This was followed by Schütz's hymn in praise of the name of Jesus, "O Jesu Nomen Dulce," very much like a lullaby, soft and sweet and comforting.
Streeter took the stage with Toccata XVIII in F by Johann Jakob Froberger(1616-67). Performing on a fine portative organ, she played masterfully, controlling the four-part fugue in her dancing fingers.
"In deine Hände," from Bach's remarkable cantata Actus Tragicus (Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit), S.106, was sung as Bach wrote it – with compassion and comfort.
The first half of the concert ended with "Ach, dass ich Wassers genug hätte" by Johann Christoph Bach, Johann Sebastian's first cousin once removed. The accompaniment was supplemented by Elizabeth Phelps with a violin obbligato. This is an impassioned penitential prayer. The sinner is grief stricken and pleads for enough water to keep his tears flowing forever. Medley's performance had tears in it and conveyed the emotional pathos of the text.
After an intermission, we heard another Italian setting by Bümler, who had started the program, and Streeter played a sparkling Passacaglia Variata on the harpsichord.
With the joyful cantata "Ich danke dem Herrn von ganzem Herzen" (I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart), Schütz takes the opportunity to show off a bit, and Medley likewise showed off some of the technical skills that develop with practice and persistence.
While none of us were convinced that it would snow on Thursday..., we did agree that Philip Friedrich Böddecker's "Weihnachts-Konzert" (Christmas Concert) was a charming and delightful way to end this lovely evening. The rich voice of Medley wowed us with its power, fascinated us with its color and warmth, and intrigued us with its wide range of emotional communication.
The accompaniment was superb, and the organ and harpsichord solo performances were awesome. Onward HIP!