Coping with crisisPerforming artists have been severely limited in sharing their artistry during this pandemic. Indeed, my last review was written fully eight months ago, as live musical performances have given way, by medical necessity, to “virtual” music-making via YouTube and Zoom offerings. We’ve all had to adapt as we continue to await the advent of a vaccine.

One way to adapt? Perform outside. Dr. Kelly Nivison, Artistic Director and flutist with the Raleigh Camerata, has moved the group’s virus-era concerts to Raleigh’s Lake Wheeler Park, where a shelter provides the acoustic along with the space necessary for social distancing in the audience. Of course, al fresco music-making brings with it some challenges not found in a concert hall: three of the four performers were masked (no, one can’t play a flute while masked, but Nivison’s Baroque flute was wearing a plastic shield close to its mouthpiece); the outdoor environment called for early-and-frequent tuning; and the normal concert hall is not usually susceptible to motorcycles and/or barking dogs unless the program includes extremely avant garde music or an offering from P.D.Q. Bach. But they persevered, with success.

Camerata members joining Nivison for this concert were harpsichordist Jennifer Streeter, violinist Allison Willet, and UNC gambist/cellist Brent Wissick. While the outdoor acoustic tended to favor the flute (there’s a reason that marching bands don’t use strings, other than the rare bass), the four musicians’ instruments blended well and were easily heard.

The program opened with a two-movement quartet by Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787), described in the notes as perhaps “the last virtuoso viola da gamba player of the era.” Wissick’s gamba, its six strings bowed underhanded while the instrument is held between the knees (da gamba – without being propped on an end pin), produced a tone which, while less assertive as his cello, nevertheless undergirded the ensemble. His unerring intonation provided the solid foundation on which the keyboard, flute, and violin built. Abel’s scoring provided tonal variety as we heard all four instruments together, or the two strings and keyboard, or flute/violin/keyboard without the gamba. Audience members may have noted Willet’s bow, which, unlike the modern bow, is held lightly with all fingers above its frog. This transitional composer’s music at times became Mozartean, especially in the second movement A-B-A Allegretto, where the excursion to the related minor key was a welcome moment.

Georg Philipp Telemann’s (1681-1767) music is well-known to Baroque-music lovers, but his fantasias for unaccompanied viol were lost until 2015. Wissick brought a curiously delightful Scherzando movement from the sixth solo fantasia. The work begins with multiple-stop chords, the gamba providing its own harmony. Wissick’s mastery produced successions of perfectly-in-tune thirds along the way to the work’s surprisingly-abrupt ending. (Was the work unfinished? Probably not, since Telemann himself had published it in 1735.)

The concert’s first half closed with the Gand Trio for flute, violin, and cello by Anton Reicha (1770-1836), friend of Beethoven and Haydn and teacher of such notables as Liszt, Berlioz, and Franck. Wissick exchanged his gamba for his cello, for which Reicha’s score requires the instrument’s full range: at one point, cello and flute were in unison. Willett and Wissick paired off with Nivison in the delightful dialogues of the second-and-last movement Rondo. The first movement (Adagio) closed with a cadence which should have been followed immediately by the Rondo, but here the environment intervened: music had to be turned and re-attached by clothespin to the music stand, during which Wissick commented, “Wind is not allowed to blow!”

After intermission, we heard three sonatas: Trio Sonata No. 1 in B minor, Op. 2, by G.F. Handel; J.S. Bach’s Sonata in E minor for flute and continuo, S.1034; and the Trio Sonata No. 3 in G by one or another of the mid-18th-century Catalan composer-brothers Juan Bautista, Josep, and Manuel Pla.

The Handel and Bach works, although not so titled, appear to be Sonatas da Chiesa (“church sonatas”), with the four-movement form, opening with a slow movement, which characterizes that form. One mark of a great composer is a musical language which immediately brings his/her name to mind when one hears a previously-unheard work. Handel’s compositional “footprint” was unmistakingly present in this sonata, especially in its lively second movement Allegro, with its off-the-beat phrases propelling it forward. That second movement was delayed for a very brief reminder of the al fresco setting: Nivison had to remove a spider which had descended from the shelter’s heights to help her play her flute. No damage was done, as she produced a marvelously-liquescent tone in the extended melodies of the third movement Largo.

As Willet rested, the other musicians gave a beautifully-played reading of the Bach flute sonata, with Wissick again exchanging instruments to use his gamba for his half of the “continuo” scoring. (A work for instrument x “and continuo” requires three players, “continuo” meaning one keyboard instrument and one bass instrument.) Streeter’s harpsichord playing is exemplary. While never flamboyant, it is always musical, her figured-bass realizations sounding just as the composer intended.

The closing Pla work was the only one of these post-intermission sonatas in standard sonata form: three movements, fast-slow-fast in tempo. The opening Allegretto was reminiscent of a Catalan dance in its mood, followed by a Largo cantabile which was to my ear another dance form, a Siciliana, its triple-meter roulades gently swinging. The closing Allegro was lively, characterized by imitative passages between longtime colleagues Nivison and Willet.

Thanks to the Raleigh Camerata for letting us hear live music again, performed at a high level of musicianship. Indeed, the group is one of five finalists in media station WRAL’s contest to identify the best “local music artist” in their WRAL Voters’ Choice Awards contest. Their next scheduled concert is February 20, 2021, a program of French Baroque music with the Mallarmé Chamber Players.