What a debut! What talent! What courage! What a performance!

On Wednesday, June 22, a large and enthusiastic audience witnessed the blooming of what this writer hopes will become a major festival in the southeastern United States: the Magnolia Baroque Festival. Festivals abound in summertime and depend upon the generosity of all the members and elements which compose the community as well as on the enthusiasm of the audiences they generate through the quality and appeal of what they offer. The Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts was the instigator and prime mover of this budding festival, and if Wednesday night’s performance was a test of the future of the festival, a resounding “Yeah, yes –encore!” is the response.

The musicians, many of whom have or have had connections with the North Carolina School of the Arts, played period instruments or copies of old instruments in the style they were played three centuries ago. Some of the differences between modern orchestras and authentic baroque orchestras were immediately apparent: the sound was lighter, the pitch was lower, and many more expressive liberties were permitted. The oboes sounded like modern English horns, the wooden flutes were softer and sweeter, vibrato was used sparingly, and accents were crisper.

The ensemble was conducted by Wake Forest graduate (and former NCSA student) Jeanette Sorrell in a style befitting the music. Her gestures were fluid and graceful; she breaks the tyranny of the beat and bar line by gesturing the musical phrase and building large shapes with her arms. And in the cadenza (between movements of Bach’s Third Brandenburg), she showed herself to be an excellent musician at the harpsichord.

Most of the evening’s music was by J. S. Bach and the rest can be related to Bach’s sphere of influence. One work by a student of Bach, J.F. Agricola, which had been lost for several centuries and was recently discovered in the archive of the Moravian Music Foundation, was effectively performed this evening, probably for the first time in several centuries.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major was performed by the smallest ensemble possible – one on a part – as compared to frequent performances by symphony orchestras using as many as half a dozen musicians on a part. The resultant flexibility led to spontaneity apparent all evening. Tempos were, as befits an ensemble of soloists, brisk (and in the last movement, downright fast), yet they incorporated pauses and lifts which added to the impression of freshness. Also pleasing were the musical liberties the musicians and their leader took with expression and dynamics. (Bach just wrote down notes, trusting the performers to bring them to life in original and pleasing ways!) All these liberties were planned by Sorrell with the over-all architecture of the work in mind.

Excerpts from Moravian composer J.F.Peter’s Psalm of Joy, which the program notes call a “pastiche of hymns and anthems,” and which was first performed for a solemn 4th of July celebration in 1783, allowed us to hear the well-trained chorus’ excellent diction and the rich bass voice of Jason McKinney.

The work by Agricola, Die Hirten bei der Krippe zu Bethlehem (The Shepherds by the Crib at Bethlehem), featured Maria Jette’s lovely soprano voice with her excellent intonation and clear bright top register.

The largest work of the evening was J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 29, which featured the organ as soloist in the Overture (Bach’s own transcription of the first movement of the E major solo violin Partita) and again, in the Aria for Alto, which was strikingly and strongly sung by contra-tenor Brad Fugate. The sweet and refined tenor voice of festival founder and director, Glenn Siebert, showed exquisite taste and flexibility. Soprano Maria Jette and bass Jason McKinney added their solo voices to the cantata. The full chorus ended the work and the evening with “Glory, praise and honor,” meriting the standing ovation given by the enthusiastic audience.

The second Magnolia performance was given Thursday night in Gray Auditorium (Old Salem), and the festival continues Friday night (6/24) in NCSA’s Watson Hall, Saturday night (6/25) in Stevens Center, and Sunday afternoon (6/26) at Augsberg Lutheran Church. See our calendar for details and don’t miss them!