Early Music Review

Magnolia Baroque Festival Explores the Works of Bohemian Composers

June 16, 2010 - Winston-Salem, NC:

The jewel-box-like Watson Hall, on the UNC School of the Arts campus, was well filled for a Magnolia Baroque Festival program replete with musical treasures composed for Prince-Bishop Karl Liechtenstein-Castelcorno from 1664-95. His residence was in the Moravian town of Kromíž. The Hapsburg territories of Moravia and Bohemia produced composers who left a sumptuous repertoire of virtuoso trumpet and violin music. The festival's superb instrumentalists were joined by period dance specialists in a reconstruction of ballet drawing upon the comedia d'arte characters.

Among the Prince-Bishop's extraordinary instrumentalists were trumpeter and composer Josef Pavel Vejvanovský (1633-93) and violinist and composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704). The Moravian-born Vejvanovský was friends with the Bohemian born Biber. Liechtenstein also had close connection with the lower Saxon-born violinist and composer Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1623-80), who often provided the Hofkapelle with new works. The violinist and composer Antonio Betrali (1605-69) was born in Verona, Italy but served most of his career in the Hapsburg courts. Compositions by Austrian-born violinist Romanus Weichlein (1650-1706) circulated widely within the Empire. Birth records are hazy for the priest and composer Philip Jakob Rittler (c.1637-90) who was a colleague for a time with Vejvanovský at the Prince-Bishop's court.

Selections from Biber's Sonatae tam aris, quam aulis servientes (1676) were played to open the program and in the middle of the program, after intermission. These consist of sonatas in five, six, or eight parts. While some few are for strings alone, most feature one or two valveless baroque trumpets. Skilled players can play the notes of the harmonic series with such instruments. A very refined embouchure is needed to "lip" or flatten or sharpen the impure harmonics of the notes of the 11th and 13th harmonics. The most virtuosic could use such techniques to produce certain chromatic notes outside this series. Trumpeters Barry Bauguess and Justin Bland made such skills seem effortless and seamless in Biber's Duetsos 1 and 7. These unaccompanied pieces showcased the players' extraordinary control of intonation as they blended and contrasted the musical line. The trumpeters were joined by two violins, two violas, theorbo, cello, bass, and chamber organ for Sonata No. 1 in C. It consists of a series of several short contrasting movements such as fast and slow or melodic or contrapuntal. The strings' sound was gorgeous whether blended or set in contrast. Violins and trumpets excelled in fast runs or trills.

Bertali's Sonata à 6 ("Tausend Gulden") made use of two violins, two violas, theorbo, cello, bass, and organ. This complex and lively score featured dance-like movements. The ensemble was tight with no rough ends. John Lent produced some sepulchral and seductive low notes with his theorbo or archlute. Vejvanovský's Sonata à 4 in G minor is scored for trumpet, two violins, viola, theorbo, cello, and organ. It often set the pairing of strings against the trumpet anchored with the organ. Fine duets by both trumpets and violins were a feature of Vejvanovský's Sonata Vespertina à 8. Bertali's Sonata à 6 in E minor began languidly before accelerating. The highlight was violinist Julie Andrijeski's brilliant solo above the bass line spun by Lenti's theorbo and John O'Brien's chamber organ. Weichlein's Sonata I from Encaenia Musices made use of fiery and high spun antiphonal parts for two violins set against two trumpets above a net of an ostinato bass-line. The performance by violinists Andrijeski and Johanna Novum and trumpeters Bauguess and Bland was rousing!

Sight and sound were exploited for the performance of Schmelzer's Serenata con alter aries, a suite of six short characteristic movements played by two violins, two violas, theorbo, cello, bass, and chamber organ. Taking a hint from the third movement's title "Erlicino" ("Halequin"), baroque dance specialist Paige Whitely-Bauguess reconstructed a plausible ballet using the comedia d'arte characters Harlequin and Harlequina to pantomime Shakespeare's Ages of Man (and Woman!). Whitely-Bauguess as Harlequina, entered the stage concealing behind a black sheet a comically large, cracked egg. An emerging thumb-sucking Harlequin was embodied by Thomas Baird with a panache comedian-master mime Red Skelton would have relished. Harlequina's suckling of the baby using a wine bottle with a nipple was an audience favorite. The rise of health and maturity was limned followed by physical decline with death encased within the black sheet. Whitely-Bauguess' reconstructed choreography made informed use of highly stylized dance steps and hand gestures from period treatises.

Biber's Sonata à 6 in F Major for two violins, two violas, theorbo, trumpet, cello, and organ received a vigorous performance with more amazing valveless virtuosity from Bauguess. A scheduled Sonata in D Major by Biber was dropped from the program and a splendid Schmelzer Sonata in A minor for two violins, theorbo, cello, and organ gave first violinist Andrijeski ample opportunity for spectacular string fireworks not unworthy of J.S. Bach! Rittler's Ciaccona brought the whole ensemble on stage for a fine example of the form. This was the perfect finish for a richly imaginative program. Evenings like this make one regret the biennial schedule of this wonderful festival!