A more-than-capacity crowd was present for the end-of-semester performance of the UNC Baroque Ensemble, directed from the cello by Brent Wissick. Audience members were standing, seated on the floor, or on the window-sills of the Person Recital Hall, an excellent space both visually and acoustically for baroque chamber music. Feeling that there had to be some explanation other than a nascent Handel craze, I inquired and discovered that no less than seventy students had been assigned to attend and review the performance, so virtually every audience member (and not just the CVNC correspondent) had pen in hand.

Wissick’s programming was something unexpected, and indeed quite out-of-the-ordinary. The small instrumental ensemble (three violins, viola, two cellos, violone, and harpsichord) had two numbers alone (an opening March from Rinaldo, and the closing Passacaille from Terpsicore) but otherwise was devoted to accompanying a varied array of undergraduate vocalists in arias from Handel cantatas and stage works.

First up was counter-tenor Frank Zachary, who acquitted himself very well in “Hendel, non puo mia Musa,” with elegant diction, a sound that integrated head and chest tones smoothly, and was usually well tuned. Basso Nicholas Nguyen (in “Spande ancor di mio dispetto”) sang well, with a tone well forward in the mask, and a nice ring, but could have been more expressive with not so much inflection. Mezzo Sara Abernethy followed, with a nice stage presence, but rather a lot of vibrato for such a young singer. The vocal standout for the first half was tenor Patrick Massey in a solo from La Resurrezione,” where he produced a light, attractive and bright sound with admirably clear pronunciation and an easy high register. Organist Chris Leggett closed the first half with a fluent and very nicely articulated solo in the Allegro from Handel’s Organ Concerto in F, Op. 4, No. 4. Very nicely done!

The second half began with soprano Lydia Kiefer (who spent the rest of the concert playing the violin), accompanied in a Spanish aria, “No se emendera jamas,” with obbligato guitar and continuo, featuring Tim Miller. The Iberian cross-rhythms were sharp, but the Spanish text was difficult to make out. Baritone Jay Dolan had a nice cantabile in “Cara pianga,” but not the most limpid Italian. “Placa l’alma” (from Alessandro) was a dueling-diva feature for Lisa Chensvold and Abbey Thompson, and a moment of self-borrowing for Handel (recorder-lovers would recognize this music as the closing minuet from the Handel recorder sonata in C). The final vocal number was a “rage” aria for Nicholas Nguyen, which revealed intonation problems in the strings.

Congratulations to director Wissick in choosing a program which allowed a wide variety of vocalists to display their accomplishments in music by one of the greatest of opera composers. I could only have wished for a few more moments of brio, since the predominating tone was slow and inward, rather than focusing on brilliant vocal display.