June 5, 2024

La Fiocco Closes Season with Program of Early Baroque Music

By Nancy Plum

Performing 17th- and 18th-century music from a 21st-century perspective is always a challenge. Instruments have evolved over the past centuries, as have acoustical tuning and performance techniques. While orchestras and choruses are often looking for the next new thing, there are ensembles dedicated to preserving performance practice the way Baroque composers intended. One such ensemble is La Fiocco, which presented a season-ending concert this past Saturday at Christ Congregation Princeton.

Specializing in music of the late Renaissance, Baroque and early Classical eras on period instruments, La Fiocco featured three singers and eight instrumentalists in a program devoted to the music from “Henry Purcell’s London.” Like Mozart, Purcell lived hard and died young as a composer, producing an expansive repertory of music in his 36-year life. He composed under the patronage of England’s last two Stuart kings and musically ushered in the age of William and Mary. For this performance, La Fiocco brought together three experienced and accomplished singers in soprano Laura Heimes, tenor Stephen Ng, and baritone Brian Ming Chu to perform songs and ayres of the esteemed late 17th-century composer, as well as works of Purcell’s contemporaries. Throughout the evening, the three soloists showed themselves to be animated and theatrical, adapting their voices well to the very acoustically-live space of the church.

Heimes presented the first vocal piece of the concert in John Blow’s “Welcome Every Guest,” singing with a bright clear sound and putting careful thought into every note. She consistently emphasized a vocal tone with sparkle and character, especially in Purcell’s teasing “Cupid, the Slyest Rogue Alive.” Heimes also well described the “bashfulness” of the river Thames in another Purcell selection, conveying the flow of the water with precision.

Tenor Ng also sang with care and told a story well, presenting the tale of Purcell’s “Amintor, heedless of his flocks” with graceful accompaniment by harpsichordist Lewis Baratz, theorbo player Daniel Boring, and cellist Donna Fournier. Ng conveyed great humor and a light upper register in Purcell’s “Oh how happy’s he,” a strophic air 17th-century drinking song. Ng joined Heimes for a lively Purcell duet well accompanied by recorder players Lewis Baratz and Owen Davitt in conversation with the voices. “How pleasant is this flow’ry plain and grove” featured refined dynamic echoes between the recorders and the voices.

Brian Ming Chu presented a commanding baritone voice, most expressively in the “Cold Song” from Purcell’s King Arthur, in which the spirit of winter acknowledges the power of love to warm even the deepest cold. He dramatically shivered and shuddered his way through the text, accompanied by icy chords from strings, theorbo, and harpsichord. Abrupt harmonic shifts created suspense, as Chu sang as if he were frozen. Chu also brought out the theatrical side of Purcell, performing “Ye twice ten hundred deities” with animation, precise text and clean extended vocal runs. Violinists Vita Wallace and Nathan Bishop provided spirited accompaniment, together with the solid foundation of the continuo players.

La Fiocco’s instrumental ensemble of violinists Wallace, Bishop, and Mark Zaki (also doubling on Baroque viola), cellist and gamba player Fournier, recorder players Davitt and Baratz, theorbo player Boring (who also played Baroque guitar), and harpsichordists Baratz and Benjamin Berman presented selections which showed the courtly elegance of early Baroque era. Particularly in works featuring the recorders, the players found a well-blended and sophisticated sound suitable to the space of Christ Congregation while exploring works of some of Purcell’s lesser-known contemporaries.

Genealogy being what it was in the 17th-century, composer Daniel Purcell was either Henry Purcell’s younger brother or his cousin. Like Henry, Daniel was a boy chorister as a youth and composed incidental music for the theater. Whatever his familial relation to the more famous Purcell, Daniel’s musical style showed that the compositional apple did not fall far from the tree.  Sonata for Two Recorders in G minor was performed by recorder players Davitt and Baratz with continuo accompaniment of cello, theorbo, and harpsichord. Both recorders and cellist Fournier demonstrated quick and agile playing in the second movement “Allegro,” with well-articulated ornaments.

All eight instrumentalists came together for a work by the one non-English born composer on the program. Godfrey Keller (born Gottfried in Germany), also a keyboard player and author of a treatise on the technique of thoroughbass, was one of many musicians who came to England from continental Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries to contribute to London’s high level of music-making. Trio Sonata No. 8 in G Major, composed at the turn of the 18th century, featured well-tuned playing between the two recorders with a pair of violins and effective dynamic shading from all players throughout the multiple movements.

Through its concerts, La Fiocco delves into music of specific time periods, places, genres and composers. The sanctuary of Christ Congregation Princeton did not hold a large number of people, but as concert helpers scurried around looking for extra chairs on Saturday night, it was clear that there is certainly an audience for this music in the region.