The North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, under the direction of conductor and co-founder Frances Blaker and decked out with a rich panoply of period instruments, performed in the gorgeous St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. The orchestra was outfitted with eleven strings, two recorders, five flutes, two oboes, bassoon, harpsichord, organ, and theorbo. The blend of timbres was absolutely gorgeous, especially in the selections utilizing the full orchestra. The program was entitled “The Secrets of the Muses.”

The opening work, Overture from Wassermusik by Georg Phillipp Telemann (1681-1767), was exemplary of the rich sound. A stately opening, a spritely trio section, and a celebratory closing were played with finesse and elegance. The exceedingly prolific Telemann is experiencing a well-deserved increase in interest of late. His wide range of compositions are characterized by high quality and notable inventiveness.

Soprano Margaret Carpenter joined the orchestra for an aria from the end of the second act of George Frideric Handel’s allegorical opera Alcina. The sorceress Alcina loses all her powers of illusion when she truly falls in love, and in this aria, “Ombre pallid,” she bemoans the loss of her powers and the realization that he whom she loves does not love her. With careful enunciation of the Italian text and virtuosic vocalization, Carpenter conveyed the despair of the woebegone Alcina.

We next heard a Suite from Venus and Adonis by the English composer John Blow (1649-1708). The suite included “The Grace’s Dance,” lively and jig-like; a genteel “Gavatt,” a slightly somber “Sarabande,” and concluded with “A Ground.” The orchestration was unique and impressive in the use of woodwinds and an especially beautiful passage featuring the recorders.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s well-known Concerto in D minor, S.1043, for two violins, brought the first half of the concert to a blazing conclusion. This masterpiece calls on the soloists – Leah Peroutka and Matvey Lapin – as well as all the other strings and harpsichord for virtuosic performances. The first movement, always a delight to hear, is marked Vivace and opens with fugal entrances at various intervals and woven patterns of intricate dances. The second movement, Largo ma non tanto, was played with vibrant tenderness and was exceptionally beautiful. The lively Allegro that ends the concerto was both joyful and heroic.

Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747) was one of the most innovative composers of his time. Many of his compositions are marked by striking originality that includes complex counter-rhythms and audacious harmonies that were not fully appreciated by listeners of his time. Among his boldest original compositions is Les élémens (“The Elements”), which describes the creation of the world. Indeed many listeners in our time, upon first hearing this work (and especially the portion describing chaos), might justifiably guess they were hearing a work by a modernist contemporary composer. The description of chaos is essentially a tone cluster consisting of all tones in an octave. It returns seven times throughout this movement and each time it appears, the struggle between the elements (earth, air, water, fire) diminishes in intensity. The movement concludes with a perfect consonance: an octave. It is a remarkable piece, especially when it is realized. Rebel was in his seventies when he composed it in 1737. Thanks to the NC Baroque Orchestra for sharing it with us!

Carpenter returned to the stage to sing a recitative and aria from Handel’s sacred oratorio La Resurrezione. It was first performed in a lavish production on Easter Sunday in Rome in 1708. (Handel was 23 year old.) The aria “Ferme I’ali, e sui miei lumi,” for Mary Magdalene, was performed with gentile and intense passion by Carpenter. Her well-shaped tones added to the intensity of her interpretation.

Closing the concert was Handel’s Concerto Grosso in A minor, Op.6, No. 4. Beginning with a dramatically developed Larghetto affettuoso, the work moves into a wonderful Allegro with fugal entrances and outstanding counterpoint. The section marked Largo e piano, was gorgeous with gentle counter melodies intertwined above a moving base line. The closing Allegro was spritely and energetic.

The audience showed strong approval and appreciation for the artists who delivered this varied and entertaining program of baroque gems.

Note: This program will be repeated August 3 in Winston-Salem. For details, see the sidebar.