Stylish and innovative Relic brings its early music mission to NJ

Wed Jun 05, 2024 at 2:07 pm
Relic performed Tuesday night at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison NJ.

The Relic ensemble’s mission is to take early music to every corner of America, perhaps even the world. This excellent early-music troupe, founded in 2022, inched further towards that goal with a concert entitled “At the Temple of Juno” on Tuesday evening at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, NJ. 

Founded by six Juilliard graduates—violinists Kako Boga, Aniela Eddy, Toma Iliev, Natalie Rose Kress, Rebecca Nelson and cellist Cullen O’Neil — Relic is comprised of first-class players active in the New York early music scene. The period-instrument ensemble’s market niche is dictated by its mission, with concerts from Washington DC to Kalamazoo, MI in recent months. 

Innovative programming is a factor in Relic’s audience appeal, employing narrative chapters to unite a vast repertoire under an overarching theme. For this concert, it was the Roman goddess Juno, who, among her other attributes and duties, kept a special watch over all aspects of women’s lives. The program was divided into six chapters, each introduced by a reading delivered by Rebecca Nelson. Relic’s taste in literature, ranging from William Congreve to Virgil, Robert Herrick, and John Lawson Stoddard, is as eclectic as in music. 

The multiple works in each of the six chapters were played with only the briefest of pauses between them. It took a keen ear and some knowledge of Baroque music to discern where one piece began and another ended, but that wasn’t really the point. The concert was intended to be a musical experience where mood and emotion were paramount, rather than a guessing game as to who penned which piece. 

The panache and virtuosity of the musicians was evident from the opening measures of the opening Overture to Handel’s Semele. The incisive bowing of the strings and elegance of the playing summoned the regal nature of the goddess. The clarity and transparency of the playing served to highlight the work’s structure, which was also a hallmark of the performance.

Relic performed works by the most famous of the Baroque composers, including selections by Purcell, Rameau, Charpentier, Couperin, and Vivaldi. They were accompanied by works from less well known ones which provided an equal share of the musical colors and emotions which anchored the performance.

Melody and motion were at play in Relic’s performance of Vincenzo Albrici’s Sonata a 5, enhanced by the sinuous, rich sounds produced by cellist Cullen O’Neil and bassoonist Georgeanne Banker. Their artistry was also savored in raging, warlike music from Rameau’s opera Platée. Even more fierce and furious, was the entire ensemble’s playing in “La Discorde,” an interlude from André Campra’s opéra-ballet L’Europe galante. 

There were lovelier sounds to be heard. “Cave of Sleep” from John Eccle’s Semele, which predates Handel’s opera by almost four decades, was made light and mysterious by the delicate pizzicato playing of the strings. Paradise was evoked in a selection from Anthony Holborne’s The Sighes, as the violins and cello played tender flowing melodies. Theorbist Cameron Welke lent eloquence to Marin Marais’s Les voix humaines. Rebecca Nelson’s sublime playing elevated music by Michel Richard’s Delalande.

The lighter moments of the concert were inspired by Juno’s persona as the goddess of childbirth. Couperin’s Le Dodo L’amour aud Berceau not only featured dulcet playing by harpsichordist Robert Warner, but showed the entire ensemble at its most sensitive and vibrant. Violinists Natalie Rose Kress and Toma Iliev strutted about as they plucked out the delightful strains of “A Bird’s Prelude” from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen to the delight of all. 

Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins and Cello in D minor, Op. 3, No. 11 from L’estro armonico concluded Relic’s visit to the Temple of Juno. With Kress and Iliev as soloists, Relic captured both the grandeur and passion of the goddess. Her earthiness, as was to be expected, was provided by the spicy playing of O’Neil on the cello. Another snippet of Vivaldi served as the briefest of encores. 

It has taken the New York City-based ensemble two years to make it across the Hudson River. Relic drew an eager audience in Madison for a concert of Baroque music as intriguing as it was expertly performed. Concerts such as this will undoubtedly hold for future outings to the Garden State.

Relic will repeat the program 7 p.m. Wednesday at First Presbyterian Church in New Canaan, CT; and 6:30 p.m. Friday at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in New York.

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