Review: Nota Bene Period Orchestra

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Nota Bene Period Orchestra

Nota Bene Period Orchestra

A concert Friday night by the Nota Bene Period Orchestra was proof that the witching hour comes early on Hallowe’en and is indiscriminate in its manifestation. By 7:45pm, two men in full 18th century livery were seated in the front row. By 8, cellist Felix Deak’s transmutation into The Incredible Hulk had already begun in the form of huge orange feet, while violinst Julie Baumgartel had developed the ears and teeth of a gremlin.

Parkminster United Church in Waterloo was about half full for the second concert of the orchestra’s 2008-09 season. The guest soloist was Baroque oboist Washington McClain.

The black grenadilla wood and ivory rings on McClain’s instrument make it look very much like a fancy bagpipe chanter. Although not as subtle as the shorter classical oboe, the instrument does make quite a pleasant sound. Soft around the edges with a strong core, it is a good complement to the violins it usually scored with.

McClain opened the program with a concerto for oboe and strings (Op7 no.12) by Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751). It was exactly as one would expect: a light, frothy opening, an aria-like slow movement and a finale that gets the toes tapping. McClain did the best he could with his instrument’s limited dynamic range, expertly shaping phrases and making strategic use of vibrato.

A rather curious programming choice followed: a set of trio sonatas by François Couperin’s (1668-1733) called L’Impériale and the intermission inserted between the second and third movements of Georg Philipp Telemann’s (1681-1767) Ouverture des Nations anciens et modernes. Being able to guess the number of players in a trio sonata is a classic music quiz trick.

Here’s how you impress your friends: the continuo section counts as one, even if there is a harpischordist, lutenist and a gambist. Friday evening, there was the much more standard harpsichord and gamba along with violinist Linda Melsted and McClain to make a four-sided trio.

The baroque oboe is a wild beast and taming it is a process with few extrinsic rewards. McClain did a brilliant job of it, blending well in the ensemble when necessary and standing confidently in the spotlight when the time was right. The final movement was fugal and got a little woolly in places. Nevertheless, it was a strong ending to a collection of agreeable, if forgettable, pieces.

By far the most interesting set of pieces was the second part of the Telemann suite consisting of three pairs of French dances meant to evoke the ancient and modern versions of Germany, Sweden and Denmark respectively. Modern in this instance, of course, means the early 18th century high Baroque rather than Eames chairs and Ikea. I was at a loss to hear any concrete nationalistic flavour but no matter, the music was a delight.

The most spectacular part of this suite was the final movement, entitled The Old Ladies. A line that descends chromatically was used in the Baroque indicate sadness or lamenting. That, combined with some excellent phrasing and judicious use of slides, transformed this gentle granny into a hilarious caricature of a nagging old bag whose final breath can’t come quickly enough. Perhaps Telemann had mother-in-law issues?

Nota Bene is run by consensus rather than from the top down, as is the custom in larger groups. At its best, this strategy can result in more involved, dynamic ensemble, however the approach works less well when applied to intonation. The first violins were in full maverick mode Friday night, often distracting from what the rest of the group was doing.

The last piece on the program was a concerto for two violins by JS Bach (1685-1750). BWV 1060 is less famous than its Suzuki Book 7 cousin but it is still a lovely piece. The two parts are intertwined rather than parallel, highlighting oboe and violin’s distinctive timbres. Beautiful playing by Melsted and McClain brought the concert to a satisfying close.

Next concert:
Leçons de Ténèbres & French sacred music by Charpentier

27th February 2009 Parkminster United, Waterloo;
28th February 2009 Harcourt United, Guelph
8pm both nights

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