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I haven't been to a concert since February, so it was with great pleasure that I set out on a fine early fall day to the New Hope Church Trail Head Park in Cary on Saturday afternoon. Puffy fair-weather clouds gave a mix of sun and shade, and a mild breeze helped keep the COVID at bay. The Raleigh Camerata Baroque ensemble set up in a shelter, and the audience was safely spaced, mostly some distance, away on the lawn. There was a good crowd on hand, clearly joining me in celebrating a return, of a sort, to concert life.
Outdoors is not an ideal setting for Baroque instruments playing chamber music; after all, the very words "camerata" and "chamber" indicate the importance of the hall. Baroque instruments are softer than modern ones, most especially the harpsichord. Thankfully, the shelter helped project the sound enough for most to hear, and apart from the occasional dog fight and squeaky bicycles, there was little background noise.
This afternoon featured harpsichord, baroque flute and violin, natural horn, and two alphorns. Artistic director Dr. Kelly Nivison played a Baroque flute, which sported a slightly anachronistic transparent plastic shield around the mouthpiece – both COVID insurance and protection from the breeze. Allison Willet played the Baroque violin. If you haven't caught a performance on this instrument, especially in the hands of someone as experienced as Willet, I recommend checking it out. Both the gear and the technique are significantly different from the modern violin. Harpsichordist Jennifer Streeter, originally from Europe, now lives in Cary, getting by as a freelance musician and bodyworker. One can only imagine how difficult the epidemic has been for her! Rachel Niketopoulos brought her natural horn and also played the alphorn, an instrument I have only seen on Ricola ads. Niketopoulos is well experienced in explaining her unfamiliar tools of the trade to audiences, and she had at it again here. She was joined by alphornist Timothy Dyess, whose usual instrument (like Niketopoulos') is the customary valved horn. He takes the alphorn seriously, having studied in the Bavarian Alps.
One of the joys of music from the Baroque and early Classical periods is that with so much unknown repertoire to choose from, concerts frequently have gems that even jaded old codgers like me have never heard. This can be a real relief from the "Classical top 100" tape loop that has ossified in so many concert halls. The program for this concert was refreshingly novel. First up was Trio in G for flute, violin, and continuo, by the most prolific (by composition count, not by notes; that goes to Handel) composer of all time, Georg Phillip Telemann (1681-1767). This charming piece in four movements did much to set the mood for our afternoon together. Telemann was not a run-on composer; he did his business and got off the stage well before losing our attention. Later composers frequently forgot this important bit of stagecraft.
Even more brief was the next work, two movements only from Trio in D for horn, violin, and continuo, by Carl Heinrich Graun (1704-59). Most of his work was Italian opera in Germany; his Der Tod Jesu was performed annually for about 150 years in Germany during Holy Week. His music is rarely performed now.
Then came Duet in G for flute and violin by Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754-1812). This three-movement piece was graceful and elegant, especially featuring Nivison's trills, which were quite a treat. Trill technique is not easy and is critical in music like this. Hoffmeister put most of his energy into publishing until the early 1790s, when he spent more and more time composing. His publishing business was eventually bought by C.F. Peters, which remains an important music publisher today.
After a brief intermission, we had an introduction to the alphorn, followed by three short pieces by contemporary composers for two alphorns. This is a curious instrument, rather like a very large wooden pipe with a huge bowl. They were beautifully constructed, and clearly by experts. Hornists Niketopoulos and Dyess donned colorful alpine garb for the occasion, which was a hit with the audience. The first was a tiny little polka by Berthold Schick, then "Moos-Ruef" by Hans-Jürg Sommer, and finally "Vo de Blaue Jurabärge" by Robert Körnli.
Telemann came up again with his Fantasia in F minor for solo violin, in four movements. It's practically automatic to compare any solo violin music with the canonical Bach works, but it's best to resist that and simply enjoy this music for what it is – which is very charming and expressive and worth a listen. I would much rather have heard this solo Baroque violin in a small room, but beggars can't be choosers, and this performance worked.
And then we had our Moment of Diversity, in an otherwise entirely white event. Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (December 25, 1745 – June 12, 1799) was the first recorded black composer of Classical music. I recommend reading his biography in more detail than can be included in this review, as the details are really very interesting. We heard his Sonata No. 1 in B-flat for violin and fortepiano (played here on the harpsichord), in two movements.
For the finale, we had Trio in F for flute, violin, and continuo by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), in four movements. This closed out a most enjoyable afternoon, well appreciated by the audience and by this humble reviewer as well.