Even if one generally prefers “modern” interpretations of 17th- and 18th-century music over historically informed performances, there’s no reason why one should criticize an early music ensemble if it has the necessary musicianship to back up its choices of instrumentation and style.
Such is my attitude in evaluating Music City Baroque’s first concert of the season, which took place this past Sunday at Vanderbilt’s Turner Recital Hall. The program, titled “Music of the Italian and French Baroque,” included works by Antonio Vivaldi, Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco, François Couperin and Jean-Baptiste Lully. Serving as guest director was Allison Edberg, whose current credentials include concertmaster of the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra and member of Ensemble Voltaire. This concert didn’t knock my socks off, but by most reasonable standards, it was certainly a good one.
The first work on the program was Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins and Cello in D major, RV 565, featuring Edberg, violinist Karen Clarke and cellist Christopher Stenstrom. As is typical for Vivaldi, this concerto is filled to the brim with expressive and virtuosic gestures, all of which Music City Baroque executed with poise. Notably, the dissonant notes — whose appearance in pre-Romantic music never fails to catch me by surprise — weren’t suppressed but rather emphasized, creating a uniquely delirious effect.
This concerto was followed by Dall’Abaco’s Concerto in A minor, op. 2/4: a bittersweet work played with such earnestness by Music City Baroque that I feel compelled to suggest that Dall’Abaco could be one of the forgotten greats. The performance of Vivaldi’s Viola d’amore Concerto in D minor, RV 394, featuring Edberg was not as impressive. Her playing is beyond reasonable criticism (aside from one conspicuous mistake in the first movement), but the viola d’amore itself seemed to be holding everything back. Since the ensemble violists were using modern instruments, the viola d’amore’s tone came across as rather rough in comparison.
The latter half of the program featured the sixth concerto from François Couperin’s collection Les goûts-réünis and the suite from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s comic ballet Le bourgeois gentilhomme. Music City Baroque’s renditions of these colorful works were quite evocative: Lully’s “March for a Turkish Ceremony,” with its strident rhythms and rowdy cymbal crashes, is particularly memorable. However, given that most of the movements in these works are inspired by dance, I feel that the renditions lacked a certain visceral quality. The painter Edgar Degas could get away with mere impressions of dancing because his medium was a non-temporal one, but musicians have no such excuse.
As a matter of fact, musicians as talented as Edberg and the members of Music City Baroque have no excuse for not refining all aspects of their performance. Once again, this was certainly a good concert, but I can only imagine what a bedazzling experience it would’ve been with just a few changes.