The Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, resplendent with impressive displays of African-American culture and the artistic contributions of the local community over the last 150 years, is host to many performing events. The former sanctuary of St. Joseph’s AME Church is a most suitable concert space for the soft, dulcet tones produced by Baroque violins, viols, and theorbos, as in this program. This opening concert of the North Carolina HIP Music Festival was not listed on Hayti’s web site as an event, which is a curious and unfortunate omission. Early music concerts are not usually diverse affairs, and this was an all-white concert.

The Historically Informed Performance Music Festival is the big event of the year for early music fans, and this year’s offerings are splendid and numerous. Mallarmé Chamber Players dedicated one of their five concerts this year to opening the festival. The lineup of musicians was impressive; in this rarified atmosphere, you need experience and credentials to have one of the few places on stage, and all these artists had that in spades. The concert featured William Simms and Richard Stone, theorbos, David Wilson and Elizabeth Phelps, Baroque violins, Suzanne Rousso, Baroque viola, and Gail Ann Schroeder and Brent Wissick, violas da gamba. (Note that Elizabeth Phelps’ biography page on the Mallarmé website is four years out of date.)

The featured instruments were two theorbos, bass lutes with a full octave of sympathetic strings and an elongated neck of frightening proportions, at least from the point of view of building a case and trying to keep it from breaking on an airplane. Lutes are delicate enough creatures as it is, but this stretches the issue. Those familiar with Sinfonia Concertante, S. 98.6, by P. D. Q. Bach, for ocarina, flute, balalaika, lute, and bagpipe, will recall that the lute looked nice, but couldn’t be heard when another instrument was in the room. It is always a challenge to hear in any concert hall. The theorbo’s extra strings and larger size help project, and having two of them also assisted.

Of the eight works on the program, the first two and the seventh were by William Lawes. This relatively unfamiliar composer was quite a power in his day (1602-45), and he produced some truly sophisticated scores. With time and the passing of the old instruments from the stage, his music fell into obscurity. His entire adult life was in the employ of Charles I of England. The king gave him a cushy safe post when things got in a military mode, in the King’s Life Guards; but he was “casually shot” when the Royalists were defeated at Rowton Heath in 1645. Only recently has his music become available.

The first work was the slow and stately Pavan movement from Royall Consort, Sett No. 2 in D minor by Lawes, followed by the entire Sett No. 1 in D minor, in seven movements. This was performed by both violins, two violas da gamba, and two theorbos – everyone except Rousso. When a number of these old instruments play together, it’s still relatively quiet, even when they’re wailing away. The sounds are not as focused as with modern instruments, so there is a general fuzzy quality when the ensembles are large. Once you get used to the sonic environment and the dynamic range, from piano to pianississimo, it is quite captivating.

The third piece was by the great Marin Marais (1656-1728), and I am happy to report that it was NOT the Bladder-Stone Operation for viol da gamba and harpsichord. No, instead we heard Tombeau de Mr. Meliton for two viols and continuo (two theorbos), a memorial piece for a Parisian organist. Wissick introduced the work and noted that J.S. Bach may have used this melody, in a different meter, for the opening of his St. Matthew Passion.

The fourth work was a Suite for 2 Lutes (compilation from two suites) by Robert De Visée (c. 1655-1733). This, performed on the two theorbos, consisted of three movements picked from two pieces. Visée was a composer working in the courts of Louis XIV and XV.

After intermission, we had Divisions on “John Come Kiss Me Now” by Thomas Baltzar (c. 1630-63). Divisions in this case means variations, and on a relatively ribald theme. This featured Wilson doing fast fiddling on his Baroque violin, along with a viol, Simms on a Baroque guitar, and Stone on theorbo. Baltzar was a German violinist and composer who migrated to England and ended up working for Charles II. Clearly, he was a virtuoso of his day, and he gave himself something to work on here.

Then we had a theorbo duet, Capricci a due stromenti by Bellerofonte Castaldi (1580-1649), in three movements. That was followed by the whole consort (without Rousso) in Royall Consort, Sett No. 8 by Lawes, in six movements.

Finally, Rousso could take a brief break from keeping the show together and joined all the others in Sonata Concertata in Stil Moderna (Vol. 2) XV à 4 by Dario Castello (1602-31).

All around a fine show, and well appreciated by a modest crowd. There was a mention in the program that “To make concerts profitable we [Malarmé] would need to charge $150 a ticket….” This is not unusual; I’ve had similar conversations with and about other chamber music organizations. One wonders if, given a choice, audiences might prefer, instead of a live concert, for the first hundred in line get a CD of the music, a $100 bill, and then go home to listen whenever and wherever they want. Clearly, the economic model is about as broken as it can get.

After the concert, in the manner of many my age (just turned 65!), I took one of my many wrong turns and made my way back to the highway through some tough Durham neighborhoods I had not seen before. Thankfully, I didn’t run into the patrol car which ran the red light and flipped on his sirens and lights at the last second. So long, dulcet tones of centuries past; welcome to our gritty modern life! The disconnect was jarring, and it required mention.

Note: The HIP Festival runs through the end of the month. See our calendar for complete details of the many offerings!