Concert Packs Stull, Affirms Baroque Music’s Contemporary Relevance

Neil McCalmont

Spanning well over a century, the beginning of the Baroque era saw the creation of tonality and eventually culminated in the musical masterpieces of composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. In more recent years, it has provided much of the inspiration behind the ever-growing historical performance movement in music. Unfortunately, some have taken Baroque music in today’s world solely as an inspiration for new compositions or as an art to be studied, rather than reveling in its musical splendor. However, the Oberlin Baroque Orchestra’s performance last Friday confirmed that there is still an endless amount of enjoyment to be found in the genre.

Director Scott Metcalfe conducted the ensemble while also playing the violin, an impressive feat in itself. Metcalfe is the musical and artistic director of the Blue Heron vocal ensemble and is one of North America’s leading interpreters of 15th, 16th and 17th-century music. He led the orchestra in David H. Stull Recital Hall, which was packed tighter than an orchestra pit performing Richard Wagner’s Ring. Never mind empty seats — there was not an empty space on the floor to be found.

The concert began with Handel’s Concerto Grosso in G major, a piece that was most likely compiled from Handel’s previous works by another musician. This practice was not particularly uncommon for the time, especially considering how often Handel recycled themes from his own works to begin with. The Concerto Grosso genre was one of the most popular in the Baroque era. It pits two groups of instruments against each other: a larger one (usually a string ensemble) and a smaller one. This concerto showcased the talents of the solo flutist, who performed splendidly. The short work as a whole was absolutely delightful, particularly the final movement. The orchestra captured its jubilance elegantly.

Next on the program was a selection of incidental music from Henry Purcell’s The Married Beau, or the Curious Impertinent. While Purcell is primarily known today only for his opera Dido and Aeneas, he wrote plenty of music for the stage notable for its richness of emotion. After a somber, French-style introduction, the overture ended with a ravishing fugue. As the subject burst forth in different voices, the orchestra’s precision was supported by the vibrant character it added to the piece. Character itself appeared to be a unifying theme in this work, as one could easily imagine François Couperin or Robert Schumann adding evocative titles to the different movements if either had written the piece.

Afterward, the audience was treated to Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in B-flat major, a well-placed Italian counterweight to the rest of the program. In Baroque music, different styles of music depend largely on their nationality. For example, JeanPhillippe Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie has a distinctly “French” style and sound.

The real heavyweight was the piece by Georg Philipp Telemann — one of the most prolific composers in history — that ended the concert. It was one of his many “Tafelmusik” pieces. “Tafelmusik,” or “table-music,” is a piece traditionally composed for a dinner or banquet. Such pieces are often characterized as lighter-sounding. The ensemble performed the work admirably. There were many fast-paced movements and not a single note was out of place. The light-footed dashing of the strings was full of brevity and spirit. The gigue, a Baroque dance, bordered on a wild frenzy at the end, but there was still a refined quality in their performance. It was truly a wonderful balance.

Baroque music is old — the last pieces written in the style are from almost 300 years ago. Yet it is truly exhilarating to be caught up in a performance that makes one feel as though the music had been written recently. For Baroque music in particular, this can be a challenge, as performing in a historical context requires that even more time, practice, energy and knowledge be put into the final product. However, the results produced are incredibly gratifying for both audiences and performers.