A fond farewell to Carolina Baroque

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 7, 2011

By Sarah Hall
For The Salisbury Post
Each fall, Salisbury’s chamber music lovers have looked forward to a new season of Carolina Baroque. But after 23 years of music-making, the ensemble has taken its final bows.
The group’s director and recorder-player, Dr. Dale Higbee, announced that the spring 2011 performance was their last, and that the group has issued its 33rd and final recording. Higbee decided that in spite of the fact that he has unusually good vision and hearing for an 86-year-old, it was time to retire from performing.
“We made it through our “Handel and Salisbury” program this past April, but it could have been a disaster if I had lost my balance and had a fall,” says Higbee. “How many people do you know who are giving concerts at age 86?”
He says he has had some trouble with balance and so now uses a cane and seldom goes out at night.
Higbee calls Carolina Baroque his “retirement plan,” which he began shortly after retiring as a clinical psychologist at Salisbury’s VA Medical Center in February 1987. He had already been formulating his retirement plan earlier, having ordered a fine harpsichord made by Richard Kingston, an outstanding instrument maker who lives in North Carolina. It was delivered at Christmas time in 1986.
Higbee first heard Daniel Hannemann play harpsichord in 1985 with the Charlotte Camerata during a two-day celebration of the bicentennial of the birth of J. S. Bach at Catawba College. Hannemann was organist/choirmaster at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Lincolnton. When Higbee was looking for people to play in Carolina Baroque, he approached Hannemann, who then recommended soprano Diane Amidon.
When Carolina Baroque came into being in 1988, it consisted at first of Higbee, Amidon, Hannemann, violinist William Tritt, along with guest performers. They were playing at modern pitch (A=440) at that time, but in 1992, Higbee decided to switch to baroque pitch (A=415), a half-tone lower, playing on copies of baroque instruments.
This was not the first chamber ensemble Higbee had organized. When he lived in Columbia, S.C. 1954-55 he organized the Pro Arte Trio (flute, cello and piano). After he came to Salisbury he formed the Catawba Trio with pianist Lucille Epperson and Bill Tritt on violin. He started the Piedmont Recorder Consort with two Catawba faculty members and a Davidson College student. Later in Charlotte, he formed The Higbee Recorder Consort and The Charlotte Camerata (flute/recorder, violin, harpsichord, sometimes also with cello, viola and soprano). The Charlotte Camerata played for Lady Bird Johnson, when she came for the dedication of a historic house in Charlotte.
For a number of years Higbee played principal flute in the orchestra of the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte, and he enjoyed their week-long summer sessions at Wildacres Retreat in the mountains of western North Carolina which included playing Bach cantatas and various chamber music works.
In 1975 Higbee bought a Dolmetsch portable spinet, a small harpsichord weighing 38 pounds, that had been used by Carl Dolmetsch, recorder virtuoso, and his keyboard accompanist, Joseph Saxby on their international tours. Higbee took it to Wildacres, where is was dubbed “Mighty Mouse” for its full sound from such a small instrument.
“It was a good introduction to the harpsichord, as I learned how to tune it,” says Higbee.
In 1989, the still new Carolina Baroque gave concerts at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Lincolnton and started playing in the Dr. Josephus Hall House in Salisbury. In the 1990-91 season they performed for the dedication ceremony of a new building at Salisbury VA Medical Center, for the George Washington Ball sponsored by Historic Salisbury Foundation, and at the banquet for the annual assembly of the NC Lutheran Synod in Hickory, as well as for weddings in Lincolnton and Salisbury. They performed on WTVI in Charlotte, with two broadcasts seen by about 50,000 people.
Not everyone is familiar with the term “Baroque.” Higbee remembers, “When I first opened a bank account for the group, the clerk said, “Oh, I know where Richard’s and Jim’s are. Where is Carolina Barbecue? I got a personalized NC license plate for my car that reads “BAROQUE,” and years ago several people said to me “You must really like barbeque!”
Tritt died in November 1991. On March 22, 1992 Carolina Baroque added musicians and expanded to small chamber orchestra size and presented “A Bach Celebration” in the Catawba College Chapel, including two complete cantatas plus a variety of instrumental and vocal pieces.
“I learned from that experience that Bach cantatas are too difficult for most amateur choirs, so in the future we went all-professional with SATB one-on-a-part ensembles who sang the choruses as well as the solos, “ Higbee said.
They always had the concerts professionally recorded. In 2000, Higbee bought his first computer and got help in setting up a website for Carolina Baroque (www.carolinabaroque.org).
“Imagine my amazement when I received an e-mail from Israel with an order for six of our Bach cantata CDs and asking if we accepted credit cards!” Higbee recalls. “I suggested that he (a computer software executive obsessed by Bach Cantatas) send payment in 20 USD bills, which he did, and then he told me that our CDs were listed on his astonishing Bach Cantatas website (http://bach-cantatas.com). Since then I have mailed him 10 more of our CDs featuring Bach cantatas. Also, a number of our CDs with music by Handel were listed on www.gfhandel.org.”
Many of the CDs have been broadcast over WDAV and WFDD.
Over years, only a couple of Carolina Baroque concerts have been cancelled. When Higbee was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the end of 1992, he had surgery early in February 1993 and had to cancel the spring concert. In October 2007, Higbee slipped in front of his home and had a bad fall, causing the cancellation of a concert scheduled a month later.
Up until that time, Higbee frequently travelled to Europe and had planned to go back in 2008. But instead he decided it was time to wrap up his world travels.
The Rev. Larry Bost, an enthusiastic Carolina Baroque patron, was surprised and dismayed to hear of the decision to end the performances. Bost, the visitation pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church, first attended a Carolina Baroque performance in 2000 with his late wife, Linda Beathea Bost, whom he had married that year. Since her death in 2005, he has continued to appreciate the ensemble.
“My deceased wife, Linda, loved the music of Carolina Baroque. The beauty of their music is timeless,” Bost declared.
Another of the group’s biggest fans is Toni Austin. She recounts her introduction to Higbee’s group after retiring to Woodleaf from New York City two years ago. She bought her first car in 35 years, and three days later drove it to the first concert she attended in Salisbury: Carolina Baroque’s Oct. 16, 2009 performance of sacred Bach cantatas.
In an “obituary” she wrote bemoaning the passing of Carolina Baroque, Austin states “I was thrilled to find such a first rate group of performers in Salisbury, and have been a dedicated fan ever since. I will miss them.”
She adds, “We should not be mourning the passing of Carolina Baroque but celebrating their enrichment of our lives with their music over the years. Carolina Baroque has proved that you don’t need a huge orchestra or a giant concert hall to produce great classical music. You only need one genius, Dr. Higbee, to research, select, transcribe, arrange and play the music with a small group of dedicated and talented professionals.
“Carolina Baroque’s very last piece of music, at their last ever concert, was ‘Let the Bright Seraphim’ from Handel’s ‘Samson.’ Originally scored for trumpet, it was masterfully transcribed by Dr. Higbee for his soprano recorder. The result was a counterpoint ‘farewell duet’ between two sopranos: Teresa Radomski’s voice and Dale Higbee’s recorder, which provided a superb final finale.”
Sarah Hall is a music teacher and a freelance writer.