Most universities with graduate programs in musicology offer a practicum in early music performance, usually called “Collegium musicum.” Named after a tradition of Renaissance and Baroque civic performing societies-the one in early 18th century Leipzig was headed by J. S. Bach-these ensembles give music history students an opportunity to test and put into practice interpretations the music they usually only see on paper (or vellum or parchment). The collegium musicum also offers the general public an opportunity to hear what, for them, is new music.

The Triangle sports only a couple of ensembles to fill in our local gap in early music, and the Duke Collegium has been an old reliable. Conducted by Jonathan Gibson, a graduate student in musicology, its members are mostly students, sprinkled with a few more experienced early music pros. On Thursday November 1, the Collegium performed in Duke Chapel to a large audience, a program of works from seventeenth-century France, the centerpiece of which was one of the settings of the Te Deum by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Also on the program were several motets and instrumental music by Bouzignac-a contemporary of Charpentier and Jean Baptiste Lully, the official composer of French court of Louis XIV-and the better known composers Louis Couperin and Marin Marais.

If we had to select one adjective to describe the performances of the motets and instrumental pieces on the first half of the program, it would be “tentative.” The a cappella choral motets by Guillaume Bouzignac are largely in declamatory, or recitative, style. While the choral ensemble contains many excellent voices, the singers frequently seemed unsure of themselves, thereby affecting the blend of the group and causing ragged entrances. This is one of the problems with many ad hoc early music ensembles who lack a long history of performing together.

Louis Couperin’s Tombeau de Blancrocher (a court lutenist) points up the difficulties of playing in an unfamiliar style. Solo harpsichord music of this period required the player to improvise elaborate ornamentation. Side-stepping for the moment the fact that Baroque ornamentation performance practice has been a much contested area, in this performance, harpsichordist Mark Graves seemed to have lost the forest for the trees. The result was the hesitant interpolation of embellishment resulting in a jerkiness of tempo and meter. 

Two instrumental suites ended the first half. In the Concert pour quattres parties de violes by Charpentier, the problem was intonation; with the upper and middle strings on temperamental Baroque instruments unable to stay in tune. This was perhaps due to the fact that two players to a part in the violins and violas is a recipe for intonation disaster. Oddly, the more players per part, the less jarring faulty intonation and things tend to average out.

The second suite, Pièces en trio pour les flütes by Marin Marais, came off considerably better. Baroque flute specialist Rebecca Troxler and Kathy Mattia, performing on wooden Baroque flutes, somehow managed to pull up the level of the other instrumentalists to their standard.

The Te Deum was another kettle of fish. Here, extensive rehearsal time was in evidence and both conductor and performers seemed much more assured. Suddenly the strings were better in tune, perhaps because they were supported by the winds. The clear-cut meter of the piece – including an extensive and pompous timpani part-was well within the performers’ musical comfort zone. Soloists from the chorus were excellent, especially soprano Leslie Curtis and bass Henry S. Gibbons. 

Despite the imperfections in execution, the Collegium is an important asset to the Triangle music scene. We sincerely hope that with Duke’s marvelous windfall of period musical instruments through the bequest by Norman and Ruth Eddy, both the Collegium and other existing and new local groups will expand our local musical palate.