Bitter cold, a bright Carolina blue sky, and a lovely, intimate setting were the perfect ingredients for the kickoff of a new concert series in Chapel Hill. The Preservation Society of Chapel Hill is the presenter of this long-named series: “Baroque & Beyond, Palace to Parlor: Musique de France, Period Music at the Horace Williams House.” This particular inaugural concert was further subtitled “Deux Clavecins” as it featured the unusual instrumentation of two harpsichords in an afternoon of French music.

The Horace Williams House is an historical mid-19th century structure on Franklin Street that was restored in 1974 and is used as a venue for small music recitals and an art gallery. The main parlor where recitals take place barely seats 30 people with the overflow forced to sit in an adjoining room with little or no views of the performers. Despite that minor inconvenience (arrive early!), it is a comforting and peaceful ambience that is especially conducive to the French Baroque.

Artistic Director of this series is Beverly Biggs (harpsichord and fortepiano), returning to her home state after living for many years in the Pacific Northwest. She paired up with Elaine Funaro for Dance Suite for Two Harpsichords by Gaspard Le Roux, a late 17th century harpsichordist and composer. French music, like most of French culture at that time, was frilly, royalty-centric, and highly ornamented. Although there was some notational indications regarding ornamentation — like jazz musicians two centuries later who improvise based on harmonic sequences — players at that time were expected to display their ability to, in effect, vary and “dress up” the melody. This particular suite was a typical set of dances that had been, and would be, written thousands of times. The instruments were very powerful, especially in the small, wood-floor room, and both players gave a spirited performance that set the tone for the afternoon.

Jean-Philippe Rameau, along with François Couperin, is considered the master of the French Baroque, and we next heard one of his Pieces de Clavecin en Concert. This one is scored for harpsichord, violin, flute and gamba as we met the rest of the musicians. Rebecca Troxler played the baroque flute, which has a more woody and breathy sound than the modern flute and is not quite as piercing. Gesa Kordes, a new name to Triangle audiences and on the faculty at UNC Greensboro, played the baroque violin. Making his public debut on viola da gamba was Robbie Link, well known to music lovers as a consummate bass player in every conceivable style and genre. There were some early intonation problems, possibly due to the instruments acclimating to the weather, but that was smoothed out as we were transported to the Palace of Versailles.

Presenting a concert of works that are all based, more or less, on the same style, harmonic language and compositional protocols can be a dangerous thing — this goes for any period of music. The similarities among works usually far outweigh the distinctions and it is up to the musicians to bring each work to life and pique and hold your interest. This was a masterful display of that very rare talent. The instruments of that time, and their replicas that are played today, have a very narrow dynamic range — if any. Phrasing, ornamentation and variations of tone production take center stage over the often pedestrian compositions. A suite by Pierre Danican Philidor for flute and basso continuo certainly fell into that category. Troxler, supported by Link and Biggs as continuo players, were able to coax beauty and grace from the equivalent of an omnipresent Baroque pop song. The finale, Pieces, for Various Instruments by Francois Couperin brought the whole gang back for the most varied and interesting set of the afternoon. 

This series is a welcome addition to the culture of our community, so mark your calendars for the remaining two. February 10th features sopranos Penelope Jensen and Florence Peacock, along with Brent Wissick on gamba, in a program titled “The French Baroque” followed by “Parisian Nights” on April 12th. Both take place at the Horace Williams House at 3 p.m. Arrive early and also be prepared for a fabulous reception afterwards.