Music City Baroque took its audience on a spirited voyage to 18th-century Dresden on Sunday afternoon. Guest director Allison Edberg Nyquist and her fellow musicians put together a program centered on Dresden’s extraordinary musical ascendance during the ﬁrst half of the 1700s. Featuring works by Wilhelm Friedmann Bach, Johann Joachim Quantz, Johann George Pisendel, and Francesco Maria Veracini, the afternoon’s concert proved that historically informed performance can yield fascinating stories and vibrant, engaging musical experiences.
As much as I love the great Baroque masters – J.S. Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Tellemann — it was refreshing to see a concert of early music that eschewed the well-worn path and looked for those composers who might have been overshadowed by their legendary contemporaries. Music City Baroque played the whole concert on period appropriate instruments and with true Baroque technique.
The warm, buoyant sound ﬁlled the cavernous nave of St. George’s Episcopal Church, creating the illusion of an ensemble twice its 15-player size. At ﬁrst, I was a little concerned that the space would blur or muddy the group’s crisp ensemble playing. Fortunately, the size and delay of the sound didn’t faze them at all. By the end of the ﬁrst movement of W.F. Bach’s Sinfonie in F major, “Dissonances,” I had complete conﬁdence that the ensemble could navigate the live acoustics. They were in virtual lockstep through the entirety of the afternoon. The Sinfonie was solid, if unspectacular, and partly hinged upon the juxtaposition of major and minor statements of its themes. I couldn’t help but think of it as a forerunner of Brahms, who employs the same technique throughout his own music. Music City Baroque played the piece beautifully, lifting up the somewhat uninspiring notes on the page.
Johann Joachim Quantz’s Quartet in G Major bore similarly fascinating resemblance to a later German titan. The spry ﬁrst movement featured a ﬂute melody whose repetitive pattering line burst into virtuosic arpeggios, immediately conjuring images of Mozart’s famous soprano aria from Die Zauberﬂöte, “Die Hölle Rache.” The ensemble played the many melismatic passages of the Quartet with liquid ease and utter clarity. It was a joy to listen to the piece’s simple melodic and cadential patterns crackle with new life upon each recurrence. Flutist Jessica Dunnavant, violinist Allison Edberg Nyquist, violist Karen Clarke, cellist Christopher Stenstrom, and theorbo player Francis Perry worked well together, although Nyquist was often slightly overbalanced.
After a brief intermission, Music City Baroque’s full forces came together to play two pieces by alleged Dresden court rivals, Pisendel and Veracini. As strong as the concert’s ﬁrst half was, the post-intermission pieces truly showcased the group’s intelligent programming, virtuosity, and ensemble sound. Nyquist was the clear star of Pisendel’s Violin Concerto in D Major. She played with a clean, full sound which she augmented with almost imperceptible vibrato, gilding her magniﬁcent tone with just the right amount of sparkle. Nyquist’s performance was perfectly balanced in its effect, shifting calmly and skillfully from passage to passage, always striking the perfect mood. The rest of the ensemble bolstered and interacted with her beautifully throughout the three movement work. They continued to demonstrate their incredibly tight ensemble playing and musical sensitivity. The piece itself was not particularly impressive, save as showpiece for the concertist but, fortunately, Nyquist was more than up to the challenge. She took full advantage of the spotlight and turned in a thrilling performance.
My favorite piece of the afternoon was Veracini’s Overture no. 3 in B-ﬂat major. Nyquist began by going to the church lectern and relaying a “gossipy story” to the audience. She teased out the temperamental nature of the ﬁnal composer and his dramatic (and quite painful) exit from the court of Dresden. The tale set the perfect tone for a work every bit as mercurial, ornery, and brilliant as its creator. It was often deceptively run-of-the-mill, but, like many of Haydn’s great comic pieces, it played with my expectations at every turn. Cadences would often repeat several times before ﬁnally resolving. The standout moments of the ﬁrst movement involved a shocking false resolution that led directly into a far more common cadence point. That playfulness, combined with the delightful dances that comprised the ﬁnal four movements of the work ended the concert on a wonderful high note. Commendation should be given, too, to the violins who spent much of the Overture playing the melodies as a full section. Their combination of complete unison and unhampered expressivity was beyond impressive.
In so many moments over the afternoon I was struck by the value and vibrancy of historically informed performance. It can be an opportunity to learn about that which came before us — a musical experience as edifying as it is satisfying. I walked into the concert with no knowledge whatsoever of 18th-century Dresden’s grand, Versailles-like cultural ambitions. Diligent concertgoers found drama, intrigue, and genuinely cool new information in Jonathan Taylor’s solid, engrossing program notes. Historical performance ensembles have been having a moment for quite a while now. It’s hard to imagine that will stop any time soon so long as groups like Music City Baroque continue to innovate, engage, and excite the way they did on Sunday.