Sunday, April 19, 2009

Review: Richmond Festival of Music

April 19, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond

Period instruments – especially gut-string, short-necked baroque fiddles, with their curved bows – have a checkered history in these parts. Keeping them in tune and squeak-free, with consistency of tone production and power of projection, have proved to be challenges too rarely met. We typically blame the muggy climate of the Mid-Atlantic – as if it weren’t just as humid or more so in Britain, the Netherlands, Flanders and Germany, where the instruments and their players thrive.

The culprit is not the climate. It’s a shortage of American musicians who’ve gone to the trouble to unlearn the mechanics and techniques of modern instruments and start, not from scratch but not too far from it, to master an antique instrument and the styles of execution and expression that were state-of-the-art when these instruments were, in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Actually, there’s no shortage of American fiddlers who know to bend and shade long notes and draw crunchy sound textures from fiddles; but most didn't study in conservatories and don’t play Bach and Vivaldi. They play traditional mountain music and bluegrass.

As I listened to violinists Florian Deuter and Mónica Waisman lead an ensemble of period instrumentalists through the Suite in E minor from Book 1 of Telemann’s "Tafelmusik," I kept being reminded of Appalachian string bands – the way they take a fast tempo and make it breakneck or quicksilver, the way they italicize brilliant flurries of notes, they way they bend and stretch notes for expressive effect. More than once, I wanted to scribble in my notes "quick ’n’ devilish" – the highest praise one can give a bluegrass fiddler.

Deuter and Waisman, active players in the European period-instruments movement (Deuter has been leader, or first violinist, of Musica Antiqua Köln and several other leading ensembles in the field), joined violist Daniel Elyar, cellist James Wilson, double-bassist Anthony Manzo, flutists Colin St. Martin and Mary Boodell and harpsichordist Carsten Schmidt in the first of two baroque programs opening this year’s Richmond Festival of Music.

Deuter’s performance in the Telemann amounted to a clinic in baroque violin performance: a light touch combined with sharp attacks, sighing phrasing of expressive passages, crisp and extroverted treatment of dance rhythms, use of dynamics rather than vibrato to shape notes. The rest of the group took its stylistic cues from Deuter – and more importantly, caught his spirit.

Although the ensemble played the suite one to a part, projection wasn’t a problem in this intimate, bright-sounding space. Flutes often stand out from strings when the Telemann suite is played on modern instruments; here, the wooden transverse flutes of St. Martin and Boodell blended into the ensemble and shaded the colors of string tones.

The Telemann was the program’s finale – appropriately, as it was a summation of the compositional and instrumental techniques of the three works that preceded it: Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor for flute, strings and continuo; the Trio Sonata in C major of Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a short-lived pupil of J.S. Bach; and the Sonata à 4 in D minor of Johann Friedrich Fasch, a Bach contemporary.

These performances peaked in the subtle turns of phrase and expressive affectus of slow movements, notably by St. Martin in the larghetto of the Vivaldi and Deuter and Waisman in the largo of the Goldberg. Wilson, the cellist who is the founder and artistic director of the festival, anchored the continuo (rhythm section) with richly textured playing.

The Richmond Festival of Music continues with a program of Telemann, Haydn, Couperin, Jean-Marie Leclair and Frederick the Great at 7:30 p.m. April 21 at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, 1000 Blanton Ave. at the Carillon. Tickets: $25. Details: (804) 519-2098,