The NC Museum of Art’s new exhibit, on view in the Meymandi Exhibition Gallery through January 4, focuses on small 17th-c. Dutch and Flemish paintings by big masters, including Rembrant, Vermeer, Brouwer, van Dyck, Hals, and others. It was therefore a special treat to attend the latest Sights and Sounds on Sundays concert, presented by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild and the NCMA in the museum’s auditorium, where Ensemble Vermillian offered an early music program that in turn focused on music of this same period.

This small ensemble with somewhat fluid membership (based on the instrumental requirements of specific programs) has played here previously; its members are affiliated with the NC Baroque Orchestra, which also tours the state from time to time. On this occasion the players were co-founders Frances Blaker, recorders, and Barbara Blaker Krumdieck, cello, David Wilson, violin, Billy Simms, theorbo, lute, and guitar, John O’Brien, viola and harpsichord, and soprano Margaret Carpenter, whom we may as well claim as one of North Carolina’s own. These folks perform at the tops of their respective games, so their return to Raleigh (following a concert with different personnel in 2013), made for a very special homecoming.

This time, the music was by composers whose dates range from 1562, the birthdate of Sweelinck, to Schenck (d. c.1710), with pieces by Dowland (yes, he wasn’t Dutch, but his tunes were given vernacular lyrics and published under the auspices of Dirk Rafaelizoon Camphuysen), Walther, Schop, Hacquart, and the well-known (ubiquitous, really) Anon. You will be forgiven if these folks do not exactly trip off the tongue, but several made important contributions (Sweelinck and Walther, particularly), and the music selected for this concert made for rewarding (and richly varied) listening, even though most of it was intended for use in the home, by amateurs. (I am linking to Wiki articles on these composers since there were no notes and relatively little discussion of them.)

There were no illustrations, although some of the works on exhibit would have lent themselves nicely to such use. There were no texts or translations of the songs, either; they would have been most helpful. And there were no artists’ bios. That said, there were brief introductions by several of the artists, and of course there were musical delights aplenty, rendered with consistently high technical skills and (where needed) flashes of virtuosity. The singer was a delight to hear and observe, too, as she threw herself into the several short numbers she was allocated, variously accompanied. O’Brien’s solo harpsichord number (by Sweelinck) came close to stealing the show; a friend reminds me that “Onder een Linde Groen,” better known as “Under the Greenwood Tree” (from As You Like It, Act II, s.5), is “popular music, as close as they got to rock-n-roll” – and it pleases me that we both felt “O’Brien’s interpretation was head-and-shoulders above the stiffness of a musicologically-precise and meretricious concert performance.” Blaker, Wilson, Krumdieck, and Simms also played throughout from comparably virtuosic strengths.

There were three substantial sonatas (by Schenck, Walther, and Hacquart) – I use the term somewhat loosely, as in this period these are not just one- or two-instrument affairs but rather employ several instruments, when you toss in the basso continuo; and in addition these multi-movement things more nearly resemble what we nowadays call suites). This listener was especially intrigued by the Walther piece, with the instruments (violin, cello, and theorbo) mostly plucked, except in the two sections depicting nightingales. Throughout the program there seemed to be a good bit of ornamentation and in a few cases improvisation. As noted, the playing forces varied throughout the concert, so there was considerable variety in terms of texture and color, too. The near-capacity audience seemed to love it, and the artists were rewarded with considerable applause. One imagines that even Ernie Kovacs, who knew a thing or two about Dutch Masters, would have been pleased.

The next concert in this series will feature cellist Emanuel Gruber and pianist Keiko Sekino, ECU faculty members, in a program of music by French masters on November 2. For details, click here.