Three years after their first visit, Juilliard 415, the illustrious music school's period instrument ensemble, embarked on their second tour of New Zealand, bringing us a programme envisaged as "a dialogue between the two main musical languages in the Baroque," referring to the Italian and French traditions that dominated much of Baroque musical discourse. They largely alternated between the two styles, with the contrasting addition of a new work by Dame Gillian Whitehead, composed especially for these forces.

Juilliard 415 © Juilliard 415
Juilliard 415
© Juilliard 415

As their opening piece, Juilliard 415 launched into a dramatic account of the sinfonia to Handel's Agrippina. Here the influence of earlier Italian composers was palpable in the playing, with a strong contrast between loud and quiet and the flashing virtuosity of the players. The period oboe and strings made for a particular piquant combination; this piece is really a miniature masterpiece of its kind. This was followed by a short selection of lively dances from French composer Marin Marais' Sémélé. In each brief and catchy excerpt, the ensemble played with infectious vitality and admirable precision, the highlight being the extended Chaconne with its regally played opening and ensuing energetic section complete with castanets.

Soloist Taya König-Tarasevich took on the extremely demanding solo party in Vivaldi's La Notte flute concerto with confidence and aplomb, dispatching the passagework of the fast movements with ease. The sound is much mellower than a modern flute and the instrument's tone combined with her soulful phrasing made for a particularly gorgeous movement Largo movement representing restful sleep after all the preceding nightmares. The only downside was that in those agitated nigthmare sections, it was often hard to hear her when she was doubled by the strings. The first half ended with the Sonata no. 5 in G major from Armonico tributo by Georg Muffat. Though German, he studied under both Lully and Corelli and his work seemed to combine the characteristics of both Italian and French schools with the wide dynamic contrasts of the former and the pomp and dance-like forms of the latter. Juilliard 415 did well in creating a variety of moods in what was essentially a sequence of all slow movements, from the sumptuously expressive playing in the opening Allemanda to the superb clarity of lines achieved in the complex Fuga.

Robert Mealy © Juilliard 415
Robert Mealy
© Juilliard 415

After the interval, the Corelli Concerto grosso Op.6 no.7 felt less engaging musically, although there was some extraordinary virtuosity from the ripieno string players, violinists in particular, and there were suitably dramatic contrasts between loud and soft. Whitehead's new work time steps out of line fittingly stepped out of the Italian/French dual structure of the rest of the concert. It is a stylistically fragmented piece, with contrasting musical ideas emerging seemingly out of nowhere and then retreating just as quickly. Some referenced the Baroque style of the surrounding music, with some particularly prominent French-style cadential trills, though couched in more modern harmony; elsewhere, one heard fleeting references to Stravinsky's neoclassicism. The work also gave the opportunity for hitherto less prominent instruments to shine, spotlighting the wonderful theorbo playing of Joshua Stauffer and some whirling flourishes from harpsichordist David Belkovski. It was conducted with assurance by Kyle Ritenauer, who also contributed spirited hand percussion in the Marais and Rameau works.

Finally, a suite of dances from Rameau's Dardanus showed the progression of the French Baroque style thirty years after the Marais work. These dances were even more colourful and varied and culminated in another magnificent Chaconne with even greater emotional depth. Juilliard 415 celebrated the swinging rhythms of the folksy Tambourins and Rigaudons and brought lovely grace to the slower airs. The encore was a repeat of the Tambourins, played with the confident exuberance that typified the concert as a whole.

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