Irish Baroque Orchestra serves up delightful rarities at Rockport

March 8, 2014 at 1:54 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

The Irish Baroque Orchestra performed Friday night at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport.

The Irish Baroque Orchestra makes a wonderful case for little-known repertoire. In their concert at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center Friday night, violinist and director Monica Huggett, leading her band of twelve instrumentalists with equal parts fire and sensitivity, gave bold advocacy to Italian and Irish rarities.

Such a combination of music is not as odd as one might think. Italian music dominated the cultural scene in eighteenth-century Ireland. Francesca Geminiani (1687-1762), who trained in Rome under Corelli, passed on the master’s style to his own pupils in Dublin. Even Handel, whose influence spread across the Irish Sea, adapted Corelli’s style into his own concerti.

Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso in E minor, Op. 3 No. 3, heard Friday night, is a work imbued with sweet melancholy and sliding chromatic lines. The quick-paced movements featured Huggett in some rippling solo passages. IBO’s strings and woodwinds responded with well-hewn phrases and fine control of the music’s shifting dynamics.

The star of the evening was bassoonist Peter Whelan, who performed deftly in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Bassoon in C major. One of the composer’s thirty-seven concertos for the instrument, this showpiece features the soloist in some dazzling melodic twists and turns. Whelan’s period-instrument bassoon sounded warm and inviting even in the most gnarly passagework.

His singing tone also captured the lyricism of Eileen Aroon, a short Irish tune arranged for bassoon and continuo by the eighteen-century Irish violinist and composer Matthew Dubourg (1703-1767).

Dubourg, a prodigious musician, began giving concerts in London before he was a teenager. Contemporary sources even claim that his technique excelled that of his teacher, Geminiani. Today, he is remembered primarily as the leader of the orchestra for the premiere of Handel’s Messiah in Dublin.

His Violin Concerto in D has the same charm, aggressive wit, and excitement found in Vivaldi’s concerti. Its form, with alternating slow and fast movements, resembles Corelli’s church sonatas. Yet the work has a personal touch. The solo violin’s dashing trills and lightning scales bring the work to an abrupt close, as if Dubourg wanted to have the final word.

Clever as the piece is, it doesn’t match the bright frolicking style of the Concerto Grosso in C major from Handel’s St. Cecilia’s Day ode Alexander’s Feast.

In their reading of both works Friday night, the IBO musicians played with a delicate and glassy ensemble tone. The high energy Huggett gave the technical solo lines, at times, stretched the capabilities of her instrument, leading to some uncomfortable squeaking on the upper strings. And the weaving lines of the Handel, traded between the two solo violinists and cello, were not always handled smoothly.

But the two overtures on the program, from John Pepusch’s The Beggar’s Opera and Nicolò Pasquali’s The Triumphs of Hibernia, showed the ensemble in its best light. The strings’ sparkling playing combined with the warm tone and spot-on intonation from the oboes made for exciting listening.

Rounding out Friday’s program were little-heard gems for the Irish harp.

Before its decline in the early nineteenth century, music for the wire-strung harp was the highest form of instrumental art in Ireland. Today, this repertoire survives through the work of specialists like Siobhán Armstrong, who performed on a replica of the ancient instrument Friday night.

With graceful lilt and light rubato, Armstrong gave the melody of Carolan’s Concerto, the most famous piece by blind harper Turlough O’Carolan, the ebb and flow of a folk song, a welcome change from the metronomic approach normally heard in performances and recordings of this tune. O’Carolan’s lovely air Farewell to Music was as supple and gentle as a spring breeze. And the strains of Cornelius Lyons’ variations on The Lady of the Desert and Miss Hamilton flowed from Armstrong’s harp in silvery threads.

For an encore, the IBO offered a foot-stomping selection from Telemann’s Overture Suite in A minor.

The Radius Ensemble will perform music by Wheeler, Chen Yi, and Beethoven 3 p.m. March 22 at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. rockportmusic.org

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