Celebrating its 14th season, Baroque & Beyond resumed performing with a concert delayed since March 2020. While the delays were an unfortunate, yet unavoidable, consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, this performance was absolutely worth the wait! The Vivaldi Project, made up of violinists Elizabeth Field and Allison Nyquist and cellist Stephanie Vial, presented diamonds in the rough of the string trio world. While Venetian and Viennese composers may have been the original champions of the string trio, John Antes‘ string trios are reportedly the earliest known chamber works written by an American composer – and these would have been lost to history, were it not for German composer Johann Friedrich Peter. His careful preservation saved many scores as he traveled to work in the American Moravian settlements in the 1770s.

All the works programmed on this concert were composed between the 1750s to about 1793, putting them slightly “beyond” the scope of what we think of as the Baroque era (save for a Vivaldi trio performed as an encore). The ensemble performed these works in chronological order of publication, as far as can be determined, beginning with a lovely bridge between Baroque and Classical styles: Leopold Hofmann‘s Trio ô Divertimento in C. Vial’s program notes made sure to mention that “the sole surviving copy of the trio, ”written in the hand of Johann Friedrich Peter, is held at the Moravian Music Foundation in Winston-Salem, NC.” This is a lovely piece that we are lucky was not lost to history. The players delivered a restrained, yet joyous conversation in a resonant blend of sounds. The third movement especially featured more robust and exciting cello lines delivered by Vial with understated grace. These moments, alternating with gentle, detached underpinning rhythms, had all the athleticism of a Bach suite but remained gently balanced with light violin melodies that remained constantly light and graceful.

Maddalena Sirmen‘s Sonata for Two Violins and Cello Op. 1, No. 5 in G took more of a plunge into what would become the Classical style. Published in the year that Beethoven was born, Sirmen’s trio sonata was part of a respectable body of instrumental compositions that were widely published and performed during Sirmen’s lifetime. Both her schooling at a Venetian ospedali (historically orphanages or hospices, which would eventually evolve into elite musical conservatory-style organizations for women), and her studies with violinist and composer Giuseppe Tartini evolved her compositional style. The work begins with immediate rhythmic and melodic drama, utilizing a more extreme range of both notes and dynamics – definite foreshadowing of Beethoven’s iconic writing. Sirmen’s work is impressive even without this context; the second movement’s jaunty syncopation alternates with a pleading minor section, interleaved with well-placed silences. Field’s lead violin lines were heavier than in the previous work, driving through quicker and flashier motives, but also continuing to deliver compelling contrasts.

The programming traveled from the Old World to the New with Antes’ Trio Op. 3, No. 2 in D minor. Antes, who was an ordained Moravian minister who grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, published compositions in London in the 1790s; however, his works’ Old-World influences are clearly surrounded by more New-World ones. Vial describes moments that are “distinctly American” in the trio, including some of the rhythms and the “tendency for dissonances and accents to fall on ‘weak’ offbeats.” From the beginning, the work is complex, layered with constantly interweaving lines, a few quirky grace notes, and, yes, more dissonances. After a very compelling build of suspense through ever-evolving textures, Field and Nyquist delivered a sparse, violin-only moment that was in complete contrast but no less interesting. The second movement, which allowed Nyquist a few more leading moments with very tender expression, had a nostalgic feel, before the third movement’s insistent rhythms, lively motion, and graceful handoffs between parts.

At intermission, Baroque & Beyond’s artistic director Beverly Biggs, 2008 founder and local favorite harpsichordist, announced that Vial would be stepping up to take her place. Biggs gracefully expressed her thanks for the community’s support since the organization’s start, as well as her barely-contained excitement to be passing the metaphorical baton to someone with Vial’s scholarship and passion for early music. When the program resumed, Vial announced that the ensemble would be performing an additional Vivaldi work as an encore, dedicating it to Biggs in recognition of her years of service to the community and the organization.

The gorgeous and tender opening of Paul Wranitzky‘s Trio Concertant Op. 3 No. 3, in G was an excellent choice to frame the big news, with its warm, stately opening led by Nyquist, now playing viola. The players immediately exploited the string-friendly key of G Major to deliver exquisite, soaring violin lines, deftly arpeggiating viola figures, and more gorgeously soloistic cello playing. This brilliant Classical composition could easily be imagined in its original context, solidly vying for attention alongside Wranitzky’s contemporaries in Vienna – Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. This composer (also spelled Pavel Vranický – he was native to the Czech-Moravian Highlands) was in fact the preferred conductor by Haydn and Beethoven when premiering their own new works, and yet Wranitzky’s writing is wholly unique in its own right. The second movement Adagio highlights an extended high cello melody, alongside technically expressive alternating violin and viola lines, and the fourth movement’s Allegro was absolutely charming. Without getting completely sidetracked in form and analysis, I’ll just say that the playing was impeccable and conveyed the highest level of interpretation of a fantastic work.

The encore work, a single movement from Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata Op. 1, No. 5 in F, was a lightly syncopated, lavishly Baroque work that paid homage to the ensemble’s namesake as well as Baroque & Beyond’s founder through its cheerful, dancing hemiola. The return to Baroque from “beyond” might have been slightly jarring (in the context of Classical versus Baroque, if you are picky), but ultimately served as a full-circle resolution of the ensemble’s delightful program. Best wishes to Beverly Biggs on her future endeavors, and to Stephanie Vial, who seems like she will be a confident and excellent leader when she takes up the helm of this organization in the 2022-2023 season.