Nov. 5, All Saints Episcopal Church
Forays into folk and vernacular repertory are not uncommon among early music groups, especially in the US and Canada; but few venture as far eastward as Three Notch’d Road: the Virginia Baroque Ensemble did in its first program of the season.
“Eastern Exotic” ranged geographically from the Baltic to the Aegean, chronologically from the medieval to the post-modern, and from the spiritual to the secular.
The instrumental troupe – violinists Fiona Hughes and Matvey Lapin, double-bassist Samuel Suggs, harpsichordist Jennifer Streeter and Christa Patton, playing harps, winds and tambourine – was joined by bass-baritone Christopher Short, with Hughes and Lapin playing vocal roles as well.
Lapin curated much of the program, including several suites of folk songs and carols in his arrangements.
While the instruments and the most substantial instrumental pieces were baroque, the bulk of the program stood apart from a musical era or compositional style, focusing instead on traditional songs and dances from Eastern Europe and Anatolia.
Several selections represented west meeting east: a Polish Polonaise by the German Georg Philipp Telemann, who more than most of his baroque contemporaries was drawn to Slavic folk music; and adaptations of Greek and Turkish tunes from “Lyric Airs” (1804) by Edward Jones, a Welsh harpist and explorer of ancient music.
Short, singing in Polish, Ukrainian and Russian, showed gratifying versatility musically as well as linguistically, sounding idiomatic from soulful laments to fanciful fairy tales-in-song. Streeter’s array of instruments included a real novelty, the Turkish-Armenian duduk, which sounds like an ancestor of the clarinet or alto saxophone.
Among the program’s many discoveries, two especially welcome ones were string works by Maksym Sozontovich Berezovsky and Ivan Khandoshkin, Ukrainian musicians prominent in 18th-century St. Petersburg, among the first composers in the tsarist Russian Empire to produce music in Western baroque and early classical styles.
The most exotic offering – at least in this program’s context – was “Spiegel im Spiegel” (“Mirrors in the Mirror”), a 1978 work by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, scored originally for violin and piano, subsequently arranged for various instrumental combinations, here played by violinist Hughes, double-bassist Suggs and Streeter on harp. Their period instruments gave this iconic minimalist piece a more austere character and a more varied palette of tone colors, plus a bit more contour and linearity, than performances that I’ve heard played on modern instruments.
For dessert, the ensemble turned to one of the most recognizable Eastern European dance forms, the csárdás, a Hungarian tavern dance used liberally by the likes of Liszt and Bartók (and by Johann Strauss II in “Die Fledermaus”), but rarely with the folksy gusto of these performances.
The program repeats at 4 p.m. Nov. 6 at Grace Episcopal Church, 5607 Gordonsville Road in Keswick. Tickets: $25. The ensemble presents its Christmas program, “Western Noël,” at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2 at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 301 Sheppard Court in Waynesboro, 4 p.m. Dec. 3 at Grace Episcopal Church in Keswick, and in two Richmond performances, 7 p.m. Dec. 4 at St. Benedict Catholic Church, 300 N. Sheppard St., and 11 a.m. Dec. 5 at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Laurel Street at Floyd Avenue. Tickets are $25 for the Waynesboro and Keswick concerts. Admission is free for the Richmond dates, but reservations are required. Details: (434) 409-3424; http://tnrbaroque.org/concerts