Gail Ann Schroeder, Artistic Director of Asheville Baroque, and guest artist Daniel Swenberg performed (by streaming) an exquisite collection of early and middle Baroque repertoire for viola da gamba, lute, guitar, and theorbo, presented by Pan Harmonia. They performed in the beautiful St. Giles Chapel in Asheville.

The program’s title, Vihuela!, refers to the ancient Spanish ancestor of the guitar. Most listeners will recognize the very large bowed instrument played by angels on holiday cards. However, the Baroque guitar Swenberg played was smaller and plucked, resembling the modern classical version.

Swenberg and Schroeder performed works by Spanish composer Diego Ortíz (1510-1570), English composers Tobias Hume (1569-1645) and John Dowland (1563-1626), Austrian-Italian Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger (1580-1651), Italians Giovanni Battista Vitali (1632-1692) and Francesco Corbetta (1615-1681), and French composers Robert de Visée (late 17th century) and Marin Marais (1656-1728).

Both of these fine performers fell in love with Baroque music, not with the novelty, but the repertoire, while they were students. After many years of concertizing and teaching, they share their mastery with many, including us North Carolinians. In fact, both have strong connections to our state. Swenberg attended the NC School for the Arts in Winston-Salem. Schroeder makes her home in Asheville. Like a well-matched pair, they played together with beauty and grace.

From the earliest Recercadas by Ortíz to a showy closing piece by Marais, Schroeder demonstrated virtuosity and artistry, all the while producing the gentle sound of the period instrument. Ortíz calls for nuance and great facility with the bow, the heart of a stringed instrument that takes years to develop. Schroeder captured this listener’s attention from the very start.

Swenberg, who often provides (and enjoys) playing basso continuo on the theorbo, played duets and solo works as well. Visée’s enchanting composition for the giant lute impressed this listener. Swenberg made the complex melodies look easy, but this music calls for great agility. While the left hand is occupied with chords, countermelodies and ornamentation, the right hand works independently. I loved his performance of Dowland’s stylish, beautiful pieces for lute. The graceful “Adew for Master Oliver Cromwell” for lute and gamba was sensuous and warm. The virtuosic composer known for technical challenges would have smiled.

The artists played two of Kapsberger’s duets for gamba and theorbo; the first, “Capona,” called for continuo; both players plucked the strings. “Canario” was a sweet, uplifting duet that brought smiles to the musicians’ often serious countenances.

They closed with Marais’ Suite in E minor. Comprised of four court dances, including “Tombeau” pour Mr. de Ste. Colombe (his teacher) and “Passacaille,” this was a grand finale. This composition marks an inflection point where early music pivoted to more complex repertoire and paved the way for Bach. Through this concert, in just over an hour, we received a tutorial of early European music history through viols.

This assemblage of works is compelling. It tells the story of how quickly the art of playing and writing for the viol traveled through Europe. It serves as reminder that plagues and wars are only part of human history. Further, unlike the illness that presently affects us, great art will continue to sustain listeners and players alike. Thus, the program was a gift to savor.

Vihuela! was recorded November 17 & 18 at St. Giles Chapel, Asheville, NC. Barron Northrup provided video production and Michael Lynn handled audio mastering. You can listen to the two weekend concerts on the Pan Harmonia YouTube channel.