With a successful completion of the second annual event, the Music House Summer Baroque Festival is now a hallowed annual event!
The Festival's four concerts, spread over four days, made a banquet for lovers of music, real music, with every voice precise and in tune, perfect entrances, and skillful accelerandi and ritardandi. The setting for all four concerts was the Music House, with its sensual delights not limited to the excellent music but ranging from splendid William Morris wallpapers to tasty choices of wines and canapés in the intermissions and coffee and dessert. One is surrounded as well by dozens of keyboard (and a few other) instruments; whenever I introduce someone to the place, I suggest they count the various keyboards. It's never the same; there were eight or nine in sight this time, ranging from a mid-19th century square piano to a late-19th century Steinway grand to a copy of a late-18th century Viennese piano, along with a Kingston double harpsichord, a couple of reed organs, and two pipe organs.
The performers were veteran violinists Leah Peroutka and Leslie Conner, John O'Brien playing organ, harpsichord, and transverse flute, cellist Christopher Nunnally, violist, oboist Meg Owens, and counter-tenor Jacques Snyman. Newcomers joining this year were cellist Robert O'Brien, harpsichordist Beverly Biggs, and traverse flutist Rebecca Troxler, as well as Chris Mann playing end-blown flute (recorder). The overlapping names of John O'Brien and his brother Robert O'Brien, and of Chris Nunally and Chris Mann, provided some challenges that I hope I have resolved in the writing. The performers said they distinguished between the Chrises by referring to Mann as Dr. Chris – he's a surgeon.
A preview provided by John O'Brien listed all the pieces performed along with biographic information on the artists.
Concert I: The Art of the Baroque Sonata
Geminiani's Violin Sonata, Op. 4, No.10, opened with an Andante with a vigorous violin line taken by Peroutka over a stately and exciting bass line in the continuo, taken by Nunnally and John O'Brien. The Allegro featured fugal answers to the violin in the bass line. Unlike a lot of continuo, Geminiani offered up a bass line worth listening to, enhanced by Nunnally's playing. The Adagio was somewhat tame and could have used a lot of improvisation and embellishment, but Peroutka's precise intonation and masterful rhythmic drive made it real music. Peroutka took the final Allegro at a tempo that seemed somewhat slow at first, but as it progressed it was obvious it could not have been taken faster and still made such beautiful musical sense.
Any exposition of the Baroque sonata would hardly be complete without a piece by Corelli, here Sonata No. 1 in D, performed by Conner, John O'Brien, and Nunnally. Conner's delicate trills and self-assured but relaxed playing were a delight through the whole piece. Her Allegro-Adagio had some interesting double stopping and great slow fireworks at the end. The violin, unlike flutes and oboes, has no need of places to breathe, and yet the third movement, Allegro, was almost one continuous phrase. The Adagio was full of great cello sonorities; the final Allegro was classic Corelli – beautiful.
As mentioned in a concise voice-over by Conner, the French had little use for Italian music, but Corelli got the attention of the French and specifically, in this case, of Couperin le grand, who wrote Parnassus, or the Apotheosis of Corelli, in 1724, here played by Conner, Nunnally, and John O'Brien. Although it's in seven movements, I suppose one might call it a sonata. It's a piece of program music, but unless you cut your teeth on French music, which is both beautiful and idiosyncratic in the extreme, you might not recognize a lot of the musical idioms as word pictures. What one does recognize, if one is conversant in 18th century French organ music, especially that of Couperin, is that many of these movements could just as likely be from Couperin's Pièces d'orgue consistantes en deux messes, organ settings of the Mass for parish churches and for convents, composed 30 years earlier. High points in an all-round piece of fine playing included the first Gayment, in which the violin replicated a flock of sweetly twittering birds, while the cello, like a great eagle flying too close to the ground, soared underneath.
Intermission was reminiscent of Anhalt-Köthen, where the prince hired gardeners who could play (or was it players who could wait on the table as footmen?); the Festival resident musicians who were not involved in this evening's performance were passing the canapés. And what delicious canapés they were, from the culinary hand of Anne Searl.
After intermission, the music continued with two sonatas from the pen of de Boismortier, Op, 34/2 and 5; these both utilized the big-band sound of Troxler and John O'Brien, flutes; Mann, treble recorder; Nunnally, cello; and Biggs, harpsichord. It is notable that these two pieces, which had the most problems in performance, produced the finest music. The beginning Vivace of 34/2 was, at first attempt, a train wreck worthy of Casey Jones, except nobody died in this one. In the middle of the carnage was heard a firm quiet, voice: "Let's try this again." Upon a fresh start, there was a complete communion of spirit and performance among all the players and the best music of the evening and the Festival. In the following Allegro, Nunnally showed an incredible mastery of phrasing; it was just right: any less would have been less than he is capable of and any more would have been outrageous. The best music making requires approaching the red line of absurdity as closely as possible without crossing it. Both Nunnally and the rest of the band sailed beautifully along this precipice. Bravi! Chris Mann's skill with the recorder is superlative, and his ability to soar above the orchestra without going sharp, without being shrill, was a lovely thing to hear. The concluding Allegro, so evocative of Telemann's Canonic Sonatas of 1727, resulted in delightful musical badinage among the various players.
In the second movement, Presto, of the Boismortier, 34/5, there was another train wreck, but the group got itself together, had a do-over, and again produced beautiful music. The final Allegro falls away to a pianississimo (ppp), remarkable executed.
The music of the evening concluded with selections from Gaetano Pugnani's Quintets 2 and 3 for two flutes, two violins, and continuo. Troxler's comments made a lot of the fact that although publishers wanted to sell as many copies of the music as possible and touted them as suitable for various combinations of instruments, this performance reflected the specific first preference of the composer, as published. These were remarkable for their careful intonation and rhythmic agreement. The flutes and violins did a lot of expression using subtle shifts of tempo, while Nunnally's steady foot on the accelerator provided a rock-solid rhythm beneath them.
The feasting concluded with coffee and sweets in the usual Music House style.
Concert II: French!
For the first time in my experience, there was quite a rowdy crowd at the Music House, making tuning a little challenging at the beginning; perhaps it's a symptom of the excitement being generated by the Festival.
Rebecca Troxler, Chris Nunnally, and Beverly Biggs delivered a bang-up performance of Michel Blavet's Sonata in D minor for flute. In the style of so much French music of the period, some of the movements bore names as well as tempo indications. In "La Vibray-Andante," the three played as one. The Allemanda-Allegro had a great melody, with the driving steady dance rhythm I'm coming to associate with Nunnally. There was, over the repeats and between sections, the most delicious steady rhythm while at the same time, everyone's careful phrasing made it completely clear what was going on. "Les Caquets-Gavotta, Moderato" was very complex and, at the end, not so much Moderato as just plain fast! In the Allegro the bass had as complex a part as the treble, with long runs and then long steady notes undergirding the melody.
Louis-Antoine Dornel's Sonata 7 in A is remarkable for being written for three dessus (treble voices), in this case Peroutka, Conner, and Owens. Although there was no continuo beneath the trebles, none was needed as they threaded their three distinctive parts in and out among each other with amazingly precise intonation.
Michel Corrette's Concerto in D minor, Op. 26, No. 6, had elements of the concerto grosso, the organ concerto, and the sonata form all together. The concertino consisted of John O'Brien, organ, and Troxler, flute; the "ripieno" of the two violins (Peroutka and Conner), viola (Joey O'Donnell), and continuo (Nunnally and Biggs). It's a very good thing when the usual standard of Music House playing is so good as to require no mention except raves, certainly true in this concerto, consisting of Vivement, Chaconne, and Air en gigue. The combination of organ and flute, not always a successful pairing of similar tone colors, was in this case very effective.
Couperin's Concerts are big pieces, involving lots of players and lots of music. Such is his Huitiéme Concert dans le gout Théatral, with Nunnally, Biggs, Troxler, Owens, Conner, and Peroutka. The distinctively French Ouverture proclaimed, "The music is starting" with a shrill sound of alarm. The Air noblement was oboe and continuo – noble indeed. Owen was strong and self-assured. The Sarabande grave et tendre was perfectly suited to the soft and delicate sound of Troxler's flute. The "Air de Baccantes" began very gently with only flute and harpsichord. Then the cello came in, with Nunnally's precise and percussive fingering and joyful yet totally natural bowing. The violins then added more to the ensemble, then all together. And they were, here as throughout, exquisitely together.
The conclusion was the Prelude, Sarabande, La bagatelle, Gavotte, Rondeau, Menuet, and Chaconne from Marin Marais's Suite I in C. The band produced what I think of as the typical French baroque sound, with good intonation and careful and rhythmic playing.
Concert III: A Little Bit Sacred
Johann Gottlieb Janitsch's totally secular Quartet in E-flat Major is scored for Oboe (Meg Owens), two violins (Conner and Peroutka), and continuo (Nunnally and John O'Brien). A charmingly mincing little Larghetto opened the piece; next came an Allegro ma moderato, with carefully crafted given and take; then more exciting interplay in the Allegro assai.
Telemann's Sonata in C minor for oboe, viola, and continuo, was ably executed by Owens and O'Donnell, soloists, and the brothers Robert and John O'Brien, cello and harpsichord respectively. The Adagio is a remarkable sinuous, sensual intertwining of the oboe and viola, played here with spot-on intonation against the steady cello of Robert O'Brien. There is a tradition in North Carolina mountain music that the performers are stolid and immoveable; in Irish rustic dancing it is appreciated when the dancer's body moves only from the waist down, so that with female performers the plumes in their hats hardly tremble. This is Robert O'Brien's playing style. The Vivace has passages in the lower range of the oboe, a sound that I love, a sound like conservatory-trained ducks; what good fun! There was a perfect little rallentando at the end of the movement, with the performers so carefully watching each other to produce a perfect finish. The Affettuoso showed off perfectly the fluidity of big-city Telemann, who could never be mistaken for the choirmaster from Leipzig.
The orchestra brought out an absolutely lovely orchestral sound, interlaced with lovely solos, for Vivaldi's Concerto, RV 547, for violin and cello. Particularly worth noting is Conner's forte-to-piano-to-forte in the first Allegro.
For a complete change of pace after intermission, the remarkable Jacques Snyman, countertenor, from Baltimore via South Africa and London, joined the orchestra to perform Vivaldi's Stabat Mater, RV 621. The orchestral part contains a lot of typical pedagogical Vivaldi, that is, sounding like practice room exercises. Melded in with this are some really exciting passages sounding more like his Four Seasons and demanding lots of technique and feeling from the orchestra. The vocal part is mostly slow and somber but contains plenty of passages that give the singer a chance to show off his voice. Snyman has come a long way since I heard him last year, and this expansion of his repertoire is completely welcome. His voice seems at first limited in its dynamic range, and then when the music calls for it, he makes clear that he has a lot of vocal power. His control over his vibrato and his masterful trills are remarkable. My unwritten concern when I reviewed him last year singing "a buffet of most of the famous baroque and pre-baroque soprano solos" was that this was all he had, but he has (probably unwittingly) met my last year's challenge: "I look forward to continued development of his repertoire." Another comment from my review last year still applies: "I'm eager to hear him again." I hope he finds something a little more jolly than Vivaldi's Stabat Mater.
Concert IV: Vivaldi, Cellos, Counter-tenor
Vivaldi's Sonata for Cello, RV 46, No. 6, featured Robert O'Brien, with Nunnally and John O'Brien, continuo. The beginning Largo was not particularly successful; Robert O'Brien's modest and deferential playing did not adequately bring out his virtuoso part, but in the Allegro he seized control and the music was the much better for it. His strong rhythmic playing was excellent. The gnarly minor key harmonies, precise in their intonation, of the second Largo, forcefully called to mind Prelude 24 of Part I of Bach's Wohtemperierte Clavier. The final Allegro assigned a complex line to Robert O'Brien, which he played very legato, effectively contrasting against the continuo tour de force.
Vivaldi's Sonata for Cello, RV 43, No. 3 ("He wrote books of them," said John O'Brien), featured Chris Nunnally, with brothers Robert O'Brien and John O'Brien, continuo. The juxtaposition of Nunnally with Robert O'Brien invites a study of their disparate styles. Where Robert practices the stolidity of the mountain musician, Nunnally is the opposite, with a visual performance as strong as his playing. With one's eyes closed, the music is superb; opening one's eyes completes the scene. His percussive fingering and beautiful bowing are a delight to the eye as well as the eye. The opening Largo was very expressive. The first Allegro was full of fiery vigor. The second Largo was poignant; its dramatic pauses notable for the close attention the three performers were showing each other. Nunnally's trills were musical and forceful. The last Allegro is a melodic composition, enhanced by melodic playing.
Vivaldi's Concerto, Op. 3, No. 11, brought on stage Peroutka, Conner, Robert O'Brien, Nunnally, and John O'Brien, transforming the previous sound of a "little" sonata into the orchestral sound so typical of Vivaldi's concerti grossi. The violins were well matched and balanced well in the concertino versus ripieno effects in the Largo e Spiccato. Robert O'Brien's strong playing in the final Allegro deserves special mention.
Following intermission and some of the best canapés I've ever had at the Music House, this time by the Kinston Trio, Jacques Snyman took the stage for four arias written for Handel's favorite male singer, Senesino.
The orchestra – two violins, viola, Nunnally, cello, and John O'Brien, harpsichord – played like angels in the house. They made all their accompaniment sound so easy. The sound was full and complete.
"Ombra cara" from Radamisto was quiet, poignant, and seemingly not too demanding.
The high point in "Stille amare" from Tolomeo was the incredibly touching death phrase.
The excitement generated by "Bel content" from Flavio broke out into applause in the highly dramatic pause at the end of the B part of this ABA aria.
"Vivo tiranno" from Rodelinda expressed all the drama inherent in an outrageous Italian opera plot.
It is always a delight to hear Snyman sing, and the Baroque Festival orchestra was a good match.
An Appreciative Summary: The Music House Summer Baroque Festival staves off the music dog days. Unlike some other summer festivals, at which the performers mostly vacation and occasionally trot out and re-hash some old bits of repertoire, these musicians have clearly worked up a lot of fresh new pieces for the Festival. The ability to bring together eleven musicians for five or six days of intense rehearsal and music making would be a major task for an impresario even if no performance skills were required. John O'Brien achieves this success and performs as well. The Festival offers good and little-heard music with much variety; the addition of new players this year as well as the return of old friends from last year made for an excellent series of concerts.