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Chills and Hot Flashes from Camerata Nordica

Under the animated leadership of Terje Tonneson, the Camerata Nordica presented a nicely varied program of music for strings at the Terrace Theater last Tuesday. The heart of the performance was Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, op. 10. Preceding it was Handel’s first concerto grosso from his op. 6 set and the interesting but modestly performed Sonata Jucunda in (alleged) D major by Heinrich Biber.

Biber has seen a little Renaissance lately, not the least due to the astonishing efforts of Andrew Manze, whose recording of the Rosary Sonatas won much acclaim and notice. Biber’s Sonata Jucunda for string ensemble goes far beyond the harmonic language we are used to from the 17th century. With audible folk influences, Balkan sounds are created that are akin to those in Bartók’s music from 250 years later. If all that makes for particularly pleasant listening – especially when exaggerated and thin-sounding – is another question.

The then 23-year-old Britten’s variations on a theme of his teacher are understandably one of his most popular pieces. The performance of the Camerata Nordica, benefitting from dedicated and energetic playing, showed why. Standing up, as the Swedish group performs, allows them plenty of physical exuberance, perhaps too much among a few members. Their self-attested “extreme mode of expression” and crop of young players (few, if any, can have been with the Camerata Nordica for all of its regionally illustrious 30-year history) produce a sound that values clarity (and sometimes precision) over warmth.

In the Sibelius 1928 Suite for Violin and String Orchestra, op. 117, that style resulted in a craggy sound that could not merely be described as “Nordic.” It was bereft of any burnished quality that might have gone some way in improving the experience. As if to show that tone alone is not everything in music, the concluding Holberg Suite was excellent again. On par with (although different than) the Orpheus’s recent Strathmore performance and significantly better than the Baltimore SO’s from the same venue, a month later. To hear that work well performed can never fail to lift your spirit. “Pizzicato Polkas” and other string ensemble clownery don’t achieve any lifting of spirits with me – but of course I am a bitter crank - and the audience loved it.

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