|Philip Spray, emcee and violone player|
By Indianapolis standards, the setting was ancient. Its original function was served from 1890 on until the triumph of the automobile (a history memorably traced in fictional form here by Booth Tarkington's "The Magnificent Ambersons"). The music reached back much further.
The concert title, an inspiration of the program's pun-loving director, Philip Spray, alludes to the interplay of string instruments with fretted fingerboards and those without frets (strips across the fingerboard) that triumphed in concert music eventually. The guitar is the best-known fretted instrument today, allowing each note to have resonance similar to those struck on open strings.
The program lived up to its self-conscious emphasis on the passage of time as it comprised the Vivaldi Project and Alchymy Viols in music written over a crucial period of change: the 18th century High Baroque on into the early 19th. That expansiveness into the latter era brought to the forefront two instruments not generally showcased together and a composer not often included in early-music concerts. Yet duos for violin and guitar bulk large in Niccolo Paganini's output. Violinist Alison Nyquist and guest guitarist Brandon Acker played his Centone di Sonate, Sonata I, with the right sort of flashiness, properly balanced. The music has the flamboyance commonly associated with its composer, the first internationally known violinist of superstar status.
The duo, chiefly through the violin, played up its operatic nature, starting with a recitative-and-aria structure and moving on to a spirited march. The openness of its emotional profile made its next-to-last position on the program a great set-up for the finale, a Concerto for Violin and Violoncello by Antonio Vivaldi, featuring Elizabeth Field and Erica Rubis as soloists, accompanied by an ensemble of five. The slow movement was especially attractive. The well-situated, delicately balanced accompanying forces supporting the soloists, with their outbursts of virtuosity placed in context, consisted of violinist Nyquist, violist Martie Perry, cellist Stephanie Vial, violone player Spray, and harpsichordist Tom Gerber.
Rubis was the viola da gamba soloist in Carl Friedrich Abel's Concerto in A major, an exhibition of his advocacy of the viol family as it was undergoing replacement by the violin family. Abel's influence as a teacher assured the survival of the viol on English concert stages well past his death in 1787. He collaborated with "the London Bach," Johann Christian, on London concert series. That eminent Bach was represented in this program by his Sonata in G major, a string trio given a sprightly, conversational account by the Vivaldi Project: Field, Nyquist, and Vial.
Acker, besides his mastery of period guitars, offered a rare solo outing by the gallichone, a kind of bass lute that was usually used in ensemble playing. He put together a Suite in G minor of anonymous short pieces that seemed to have a kind of narrative integrity as a group. The ornamentation was deftly brought off, especially in the Bouree and the Lamento, which introduced the concluding Menuet, lifting the mood. The martial Paysanne was nicely placed in the middle, with a lovely aria on either side.
To open the concert, Acker was also featured as guitar soloist in a concerto originally for lute and strings by Vivaldi. It was distinguished for a plaintive slow movement that followed an Allegro notable for the way short minor episodes set off its major-mode flair.
To justify the concert's title, no fretting could be countenanced when it came to the elegance and well-managed variety of this program.