Fresh from retreat at Janiero, on the banks of the real Dawson’s Creek, the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra traveled eight miles, to Arapahoe, from Camp Caroline to Bethany Christian Church, for the first in a performance of three concerts, “Splendors of the Baroque.” The concert was indeed splendid; more to follow.

The first code to be deciphered is Bethany Christian (Disciples of Christ) Church. Almost ten years ago to the date, Bethany, which had been a religious presence in the village of Arapahoe since 1840, lost its hundred year old building in a thoroughly disastrous midday fire. Out of those ashes rose a handsome new building, with a steeple identical to the lost one and a large (for Arapahoe) religious space. NC Baroque filled the chancel, and eager Bethany members and community members pretty much filled the pews, many curious to know what had been going on during the week at Camp Caroline, a Disciples-of-Christ-owned camp and retreat center. Writing objectively, Arapahoe and Pamlico County are rural areas not likely to see many performances of Jean-Marie Leclair or Johann Georg Pisendel. But here indeed were some splendors of the Baroque.

A second piece of code was to be found in the performer bios in the program notes; each player’s bio was a haiku, with lots of inside references relating to the events of the retreat.

The concert opened with a jaw-dropping orchestral knock-out, a movement from Pisendel’s Concerto in D for two horns, two oboes, bassoon, and strings. With an orchestra of twenty-five at Frances Blaker‘s command, the sound was lush and full, making something of a challenge for the horns, played by Chris Caudill and Rachel Niketopoulos. Their tone color and intonation were lovely. Valveless natural horns have, unfairly, the reputation of instruments liable to produce an unexpected note. Such was not the case with these players.

Telemann’s Burlesque de Quixotte had all the hallmarks of an NC Baroque performance, most especially the powerful, sometimes enhanced scorings typical of the music director, Blaker. Originally scored for a few strings, under Blaker the Burlesque was powerful, with 23 players, including a large woodwind section of four oboes, two flutes, and bassoon. From the opening Ouverture to the farmer’s gallop of Rosinante and the braying of Sancho Panza’s donkey, the audience was spell-bound.

When faced with such generous resources, Blaker chose an interesting approach to the Allegro from Vivaldi’s Concerto in F, RV 569, for two horns, two oboes, violin, and strings. The horns had their day, the oboe parts were doubled, and the violin part parceled out by turns to all the violins, each player standing to execute a designated solo phrase, an excellent technique for the Bethany audience.

The Sinfonia from Cantata II of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio might seem unlikely for August. However, Blaker looked up from her podium to a balcony at the rear of the church and pointed out that the nativity display there was perfect for Christmas music. The contrast between oboes di caccia and flutes was not totally successful; the fifteen strings overpowered the two flutes. Nevertheless, it was a charming and exciting performance.

The flutes had stood in front of the orchestra for the Bach and remained there for the “Entrée de Polymnie” from Act IV of Rameau’s Les Boréades. The oboes were silent; the bassoon played with the cellos and violone. Such rich music in a relatively small place clearly showed how the modern symphony orchestra developed from the Baroque.

When the music is set above the performers, it is always amazing how many different performers are required to perform a work, and how little many of them get to play. In a familiar oratorio (such as Handel’s Messiah) it’s a daunting, frustrating problem for the impresario to find all the different performers: “Get me trumpets; get me oboes, get me soloists; a chorus; a string band, etc.” and then to have to see how much valuable time each of these spends sitting and not playing, while the complex text of the music spins out. Blaker solved this by having everybody play pretty much all the time.

Bach may have had a similar problem with the Sinfonia from Cantata 174 (BWV 174) which is much the same music as Brandenburg III, enhanced with horns and reeds. Blaker got in the spirit by adding the flutes as well for a hugely successful ending to a fine evening.

This program will be repeated in New Bern at Craven Community College, 7:30 pm Saturday, August 5th and in Raleigh at Hayes Barton United Methodist Church, 4:00 pm Sunday, August 6th. See our sidebar for details.

Be there if you can; this is both great music and Baroque easy listening.