The third concert of the Magnolia Baroque Festival took place in Watson Hall, an acoustical and architectural gem on the campus of the University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts. The small audience that resisted the balmy Sunday afternoon weather on the Memorial Day weekend was rewarded with a splendid and amusing performance of (mostly) unknown works for two work-horse instruments of the Baroque, the harpsichord and the theorbo, that awkward but sonorous nephew of the lute.

Playing the School of Music’s magnificent two-manual French harpsichord (David Jacques Way, 1983), Joseph Gascho opened the first half of the concert with a transcription of a well-known set of variations entitled “Marizàpalos” by Spanish guitar virtuoso and composer, Santiago de Murcia (1673-1739), based on an earlier work of the same name by Gaspar Sanz (1640-1710). “Marizàpalos” was the nickname of a Spanish actress also known as the royal mistress and the mother of Philip IV’s only recognized natural son, Juan José de Austria. The variations are charming, progressing from simple to complex, ending with flamboyant runs that seemed to sit marvelously on the harpsichord.

The familiar Suite in G for cello by Johann Sebastian Bach was also transposed for harpsichord by Mr. Gascho, posing, as he stated in a brief introduction to the work, certain challenges to the transcriber, such as how to split up an arpeggio into two hands or which notes to add of a harmony that may only be hinted at by the cello. It was interesting to hear this familiar piece from a different perspective and only disappointing in the Sarabande movement where I missed the lyricism of the sustained bowed string sound.

Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (1667-1740) was a famous and important patron of the arts, and of music in particular. At his Monday night “Academies” in Venice, he introduced audiences to new compositions and their composers. It was at such an event that Arcangelo Corelli, the leading violinist of his time, met Georg Frideric Handel, one of the leading harpsichordists of the epoch. In Ottoboni’s Contest, Joseph Gascho presupposes a competition between Handel and another leading harpsichordist and composer, Dominico Scarlatti. Using a simplified theme from Haendel’s “Harmonious Blacksmith,” from the Suite No. 5 for Harpsichord, Gascho interspersed movements from the Handel original with variations on the same theme if Scarlatti might have written them, with some of Scarlatti’s idiosyncratic mannerisms such as crossing the hands. This led to some subtle musical witticisms and several hilarious moments, culminating in a variation based on Handel’s closing with added simultaneous rapid scales and hand crossings.  Mr. Gascho made light of the difficulties, much to the delight of the audience.

The theorbo combines the upper register of the lute, fretted and fingered much as the modern guitar, with an octave of bass notes, played open or unfingered. This made the theorbo a perfect instrument to accompany singers at the period where opera was evolving and before it acquired a full symphony orchestra in the pit. The instrument is re-tuned to the key of the piece played, a Bflat here, an F-sharp there, etc., which with 14 strings to tune, can take several minutes. Johann Matheson, a music theorist and friend of G. F. Haendel, stated around 1720 “if a lute-player has lived eighty years, he has surely spent sixty years tuning.”

Attention was at its peak as the audience leaned forward to hear every note of the lovely transcription of the song “Amarilli mia bella” by Giulio Caccini, (1551-1618), lovingly played by John Lenti.  So great was the concentration that the inevitable applause came as an intrusion.

The major part of the second half of the concert was devoted to the Divine Pasticcio for Theorbo drawing from transcriptions of half a dozen songs by as many composers, born from 1563 (Dowland) to 1632 (Lully), mostly French. Although presented and described in a comic and irreverent way by lutenist (theorboist?) John Lenti, the performance was serious and moving, especially the Lacrimae (also Lachrymae) Pavan by John Dowland. The pastiche ended with a swinging country-style tune by Ennemond Gaultier (1575-1651).

What seemed the most virtuosic piece on the program followed, “La Buisson: Chaconne” and it too, is a transcription – of a transcription!  Written by Antoine Forqueray (1671-1745) for a consort of viols or viola da gambas (bowed string instruments), it was published after his death by his son, Jean-Baptiste (1699-1782) both in his father’s bowed version and in his own transcription for harpsichord, which Mr. Lenti used as the basis for his version for theorbo.

Theorbo and harpsichord finally came together on stage for the closing work, a Passacaille in G minor by Louis Couperin, uncle of François “Couperin le Grand,” originally written for harpsichord, and arranged for the two very different plucked instruments by Gascho and Lenti themselves. The passacaglia theme is a four-note descending bass line which recurs some 40 times in G minor (with a couple of perorations). Two thirds of the way through it bursts into G major, like an unexpected ray of sunshine, where it stays until the last few measures where it returns to its soulful G minor. This was a splendid close to a splendid concert.

There are three more concerts in this year’s Magnolia Baroque Festival – Contra Dance, Bach Contatas, and Future.