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Classical review: Clarke sparkles in final faculty concert

Baroque violinist Karen Clarke obviously wanted her valedictory faculty concert at the Blair School of Music to be a memorable one. So she invited two of the country’s finest period-instrument musicians – viola da gamba player Brent Wissick and harpsichordist Kathleen McIntosh – to join her for an evening of Baroque chamber music. The resulting concert on Monday night at Turner Recital Hall was fantastic.

clarke-colorClarke intended her concert to be a musical tour of Europe from 1664 to 1741. Most of Western Europe was represented, with selections coming from Italy, France, Austria and Germany. The music was carefully selected to give all three instrumentalists a chance to shine.

As the program’s star attraction, Clarke got the spotlight first. She opened with Austrian composer Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s Sonata No. 3 in G minor. Schmelzer was the first non-Italian composer to write important music for the violin. His Sonata in G minor is a real dazzler, a work filled with sparkling ornaments and quicksilver notes. Clarke gave this music a fanciful interpretation, playing it with a bright tone and effortless technique. Wissick and McIntosh provided sensitive accompaniment.

Jean-Philippe Rameau was France’s answer to Johann Sebastian Bach – he was the preeminent French composer of the late Baroque. His Piece de Clavecin en Concert No. 3 placed its biggest demands on McIntosh. The piece is positively brimming with virtuoso passagework for the harpsichord. The violin and viola da gamba, meanwhile, provide playful accompaniment. All three musicians played this music with just the right mix of precision and joy.

Speaking of Bach, a youthful Sebastian Bach once walked 250 miles to meet and play for Dietrich Buxtehude, the greatest German organist and composer of the mid-Baroque. Clarke and company closed the first half of their program with Buxtehude’s Sonata in B-flat major, Op. 1, No. 4. After listening to this sonata, it’s easy to understand why Bach wore out his shoes to meet Buxtehude. His sonata boasts some of the most beautiful imitative counterpoint imaginable. Moreover, the sonata’s slow second movement is memorably haunting. Clarke, Wissick and McIntosh played every note with elegance and polish.

After intermission, Clarke once again took center stage with her commanding rendition of Italian composer Arcangelo Corelli’s Sonata in D major, Op. 5, No. 1. Clarke played fast passages – especially the tricky perpetual motion patterns in the third movement – with ease and flow. She played the Adagio as if it were a deeply felt song without words.

brent.jgpJohann Kaspar Ferdinand Fischer was reportedly one of the greatest composers of keyboard music in his day. His music is rarely heard these days, in large part because so little of it has survived – C.P.E. Bach noted that old Johann Sebastian knew Fischer’s work well and was influenced by it. McIntosh gave us a taste of Fischer’s music with her rendition of the Chaconne from Suite No. 6 “Euterpe.” She played this richly textured piece with welcome degrees of clarity and thrust.

You can’t have a viola da gamba player on the program without presenting at least one piece by French composer Marin Marais. A student of Lully and a musician in the court of Louis XIV, Marais was likely the greatest viol virtuoso of his day. His most famous piece, The Bells of St. Genevieve, closed the concert. Wissick played the demanding viol part with color and vitality. Clarke and McIntosh provided expert support.

Clarke may be retiring from Blair, but she’s hardly tired of performing. She performs with Music City Baroque at 3 p.m. this Sunday, March 17 at First Presbyterian Church. The all-Handel program will feature Wissick as guest director. Anyone interested in hearing Handel played Handel’s way would be well-advised to attend.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.