On Saturday evening in Chapel Hill at Church of the Holy Family, two local early music ensembles, Raleigh Camerata and Concentus Carolina, presented the result of a collaboration exploring French “music of remembrance” dating from the reign of King Louis XIV. Meticulous preparation and a passion for the music made this a rare and valuable combination.

Going to an early music concert is a lot like going to a science fiction convention. Hear me out on this: both appeal to a small, specific demographic that has an incredible level of passion and scholarship for a topic that is sometimes overlooked by others. Both foster an atmosphere in which going to a corner to “nerd out” with your friends about Klingon grammatical structure or your preferred brand of gut strings is encouraged and celebrated. Both are places where active engagement with and recreation of the material is the order of the day. Raleigh Camerata and Concentus Carolina have a “sci-fi nerd” level of intensity and passion for early music, and I mean that in the best possible way. This focused level of scholarship and musicianship makes early music as vibrant today as it was when it was written.

Raleigh Camerata’s artistic director Kelly Roudabush provided a brief introduction to the concert’s theme – the celebrating the 300th anniversary of Louis XIV’s death with music of remembrance from his court. Following this bit of context, Raleigh Camerata opened with the only strictly instrumental piece of the night – Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Concerto pour quatre parties de violes, H. 545. The work was sensitively performed on period instruments (or replicas, rather) with a focus on all of the stateliness of the court dances that made up the sections. With the rainy weather, tuning proved a challenge, as did balance between the treble and bass halves of the room, but both center of pitch and balance improved significantly throughout the night.

The next work, Miserere, H. 157, also by Charpentier, featured two soprano soloists: Samantha Arten, musicologist-in-residence and Salome Sandoval, who played archlute during the rest of the concert. The vocalists were accompanied by Jennifer Streeter and Roudabush on recorders, Robbie Link on viola de gamba, and organist Jackie Nappi. The Miserere is based on Psalm 51 and is divided into multiple short sections. Sandoval’s vocal texture was perhaps more suited to this particular era of music, but both sopranos presented a well-informed reading with attention to subtle detail. The rhythmic and metric awareness and attention of the vocalists and the members of the Raleigh Camerata kept the music fresh and the ensemble tight.

For the Missa pro defunctis by Eustache Du Caurroy, the Concentus Carolina took the stage. This ensemble is directed by Seth Garrepy, a local conductor, composer, and avid Sooner fan (in the interest of full disclosure, I have watched OU football with him and his wife on more than one occasion, thanks to my own connection with another local Oklahoma expat conductor).

In an earlier CVNC review of Concentus Carolina from this year, Nathan Jones described a somewhat inconsistent performance by the brand new ensemble but also recognized its potential. Concentus Carolina has grown considerably in musicality since then. Perhaps having more experience together as a group has been enough to make a difference in the tightness of the ensemble, but there have also been some minor personnel changes. Additionally, it should be noted that this kind of literature is some of the most unforgiving to perform. Most early music, with little to no vibrato, sudden unisons, and frequent open harmonies, is a minefield with nowhere to hide.

Even so, the Missa pro defunctis was a pleasure to experience. While there were some issues of inconsistent timbre and blending, the extensive preparation that this ensemble undertook was evident in the polished phrasing and subtle expression of the performance. The Latin pronunciation had a decidedly French flavor, which certainly enriched the program but was less familiar than the standard Italianate approach of most choral ensembles. Nappi’s organ accompaniment supported the ensemble without pushing, striking a delicate balance.

The second half of the evening consisted of a joint collaboration between both ensembles: Michel Richard de Lalande’s De Profundis, S. 23. Both organizations shone most in the small ensemble sections, in which various parings between different voices and instruments were explored. Johnathan David’s tenor solo in “Si iniquitates” accompanied by intricate lines on Link’s viola de gamba was a high point, as was the vocal quartet work during the “Fiant aures.” Cyril Murphy’s countertenor added a really nice touch to the texture of the vocal ensemble as well. The final two tutti sections, “Requiem aeternum” and “Et lux perpetua,” were very effective emotionally as well as musically.

The twin approach of scholarship and performance taken by both of these ensembles is the real strength of their work. With meticulously written program notes and thoroughly informed performance practice, both of these early music ensembles already have a lot to offer local audiences despite the ensembles’ recent conceptions. The performance will be repeated again at 4 pm on Sunday, September 27 in Raleigh at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, and is something that folks should make an effort to attend.  See our calendar for details.