CAMDEN - Symphony in C was only a fraction of its usual size on Saturday, but not because of New Jersey State Council on the Arts budget cuts last week.
The long-planned program built around Baroque-period specialist Julianne Baird called for smaller forces - no consolation for the $194,000 in grants, awarded in July, that are now officially frozen with little indication of when (if ever) they'll thaw.
That's 20 percent of the orchestra's $900,000 budget, and because grants encourage immediate spending, staff has been hired, concerts announced, and subscriptions sold. No cutbacks are planned, the full house at Rutgers University's Gordon Theater was told before the concert started, but the situation is critical, said board chairman Robert Kugler. The answer is more fund-raising, obviously, with a hard-learned lesson: Government funding is often unstable. "We've been trying to wean ourselves from it for years," he said.
The concert itself was a fine calling card, representing an infrequent foray into something other than big-orchestral repertoire. With soprano Baird, a Rutgers faculty member who has been a key figure in retranslating Baroque repertoire into a more historically responsible performance style, the group was sometimes as small as nine players. No huge washes of Shostakovichian sound could hide weak links among the ranks. And no such links were apparent in the solid performances by this young, postgraduate orchestra in a program beginning with Corelli's Christmas Concerto and ending with Bach's Orchestra Suite No. 2.
In between, the orchestra had a grand time with the descriptive effects of Biber's Battalia (describing a battalion that's alternately drunk and melancholy), though Pachelbel's ubiquitous Canon seemed like an underrehearsed concession to popular taste.
Music director Rossen Milanov definitely knows what this repertoire needs - transparent textures, springy rhythms - though I didn't sense he had great personal identification with it.
Baird appeared in both halves, most successfully in Handel's 1707 Gloria - discovered only in 2001 but now a popular concert item. Clearly, it was written for one of the more virtuosic singers that the milieu had to offer. Though Baird has a good 25-year career behind her, she still sings it better than anybody I know of with vocalism that's clean, fleet, confident, and attentive to the text. Occasional smudges in her high-velocity coloratura passage work are to be expected with her dangerously fast tempos.
Both in the Gloria and "Se Pietra" from Handel's Julius Caesar (in which her tone was a bit thin), Baird's vocal ornamentation had particular stylistic conviction. Such ornaments were rarely written down; singers were expected to improvise them. Baird has always made them inventive extensions of the written notes; this time, there were no seams between ornaments and the piece's musical thoughts. Is she channeling Handel?