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Early Music Review

Ensemble Vermillian Bends the Rules

June 16, 2006 - Durham, NC:

Duke's admirable summer music series – fine artists and interesting programs in relaxed settings –– continued on June 16 with a concert by Ensemble Vermillian in Kirby Horton Hall. The group is, like the Mallarmé Chamber Players, somewhat amorphous, hiring players as needed to meet the requirements. But unlike the Mallarmeistas, the requirements are, apparently, somewhat pre-ordained. This is an original instruments ensemble, sort of – and in mufti, as it were. The members, who hail from Davidson, NC, and Berkeley, California – and, in this case, from just up the road, in historic Hillsborough – have what appear to be original instruments, or copies thereof. And they play them more or less like our pals in the HIP (historically informed performance practice) movement do, although one might question the main cellist's modern bow and technique. The artists – recorder virtuosa Frances Blaker, cellist Barbara Blaker Krumdieck, harpsichordist Hanneke van Proosdij (the Californian), and the multi-talented person of all trades Robbie Link (of Hillsborough, who on this occasion played viola da gamba, cello, and one of the wildest looking violones in captivity – it's capped by a carved bloodhound head, with its tongue sticking out) – performed a wide-ranging program of trio sonatas, mostly, by some obscure but hardly unknown or unheard Italians: Giovanni Battista Bassani (c.1657-1716), Isabella Leonarda (1620-1700), Giovanni Battista Vitali (1632-92) and his son Tomaso Antonio Vitali (1663-1745), Marco Uccellini (c.1630-1780), and Tarquinio Merula (c.1595-1665). Several short works by Nicola Matteis (c.1640-c.1707) and a toccata by Michaelangelo Rossi (1602-1656) rounded out the program.

Now these pieces were intended, mostly, for a violin or two, with diverse accompaniments. Ensemble Vermillian has some of the prerequisites for playing them, in terms of the basso continuo instruments, but there were no fiddles in sight, although baroque violins are hardly rare birds nowadays. Generally, recorders were used for the violin (or first violin) parts; the viola da gamba took the second violin parts where needed. Presumably some transcribing was required, and indeed the program was titled "The Art of Transcription." Transcriptions are useful beasts, and there are often valid reasons for them. Sometimes there aren't enough proficient players to cover all the parts. Sometimes there's not enough repertoire to fill out a concert program. Sometimes players simply want to try their hands at other people's music. But transcriptions can be problematical, too – and while much of this nicely played program was fascinating and enjoyable, too, there were some problems with contrast and texture (or, in some cases, lack thereof). One didn't get the incisiveness real violins might have brought to the proceedings (even soft, gentle violins, with gut strings...). And there certainly wasn't enough sonic kinship between, say, a tenor recorder and a viola da gamba to convey the impression of two-violin pieces. Indeed, these things might well have been written for, well, what they were played on, here....

Still, it was a rewarding evening of the nostalgic variety. It reminded us that, in the middle of the 20th century, when we started "discovering" some of these early Italian composers, we heard them in big bloated arrangements (or, if you prefer, transcriptions), or with harpsichords the size of pickup trucks, or with saxophones replacing baroque trumpets. We've come a long way since then, in terms of what we think we know about such things. And with that in mind, Ensemble Vermillian's visit was a welcome diversion. We wouldn't want to hear Isabella Leonarda or the Vitalis or any of the others this way routinely, but the performances were exciting and engaging, and the substantial crowd seemed perfectly happy to be entertained so handsomely on this warm evening in late spring.