Of cabbages and kings

Last night at Hyde Park Union Church, Baroque Band wound up its season with Handel’s oratorio “La Resurrezione,” which will be repeated Saturday in Evanston and next Wednesday at Symphony Center. The piece was written for an Easter 1708 performance at the palace in Rome of Marchese Ruspoli, who spared little expense in putting it on: expert singers, a crack band led by Arcangelo Corelli, and an intended audience of the city’s wealthiest and most powerful men, many of them cardinals.

This is difficult music, written for the best singers and players in a European music capital by a young (Handel was 23), ambitious, talented composer determined to impress his benefactors and his listeners. That we don’t hear “Resurrezione” more often says nothing about its quality, for there is much astonishing music here.

By and large, Baroque Band and the singers acquitted themselves very well. If last night’s performance had a dress-rehearsal quality to it at times, perhaps it’s because director Garry Clarke was herding the largest, most diverse group I’ve seen him direct so far: in addition to the usual strings were pairs of flutes, oboes, and trumpets, plus recorder and bassoon — and five singers. That’s a lot of moving parts, and the fact that only one name was listed in the program for oboe and flute (and no recorder) suggests that personnel questions hadn’t been fully answered when the booklet was printed.

Of the soloists, soprano Josefien Stoppelenburg stood out for her creamy tone, dead-on accuracy and dramatic interpretation. Everything she touched shone. Nearly as impressive was baritone Mischa Bouvier, who also brought great drama to his role. Countertenor Ian Howell was a bit overmatched by the full band in “Vedo il ciel,” but sang well and showed great restraint in not ornamenting “Augelletti, ruscelletti” (sharing the line with unison violins, a challenge in both tuning and taste that he met quite nicely). Tenor James Kryshak (no, you don’t remember him from “The X-Files,” that was Alex Krycek) also sang well and with a convincingly Italianate lilt. Soprano Diane Atherton suffered by comparison. Whether it was unfamiliarity with the part, jet lag, illness, jitters, whatever, she struggled with the coloratura of the opening number (admittedly a very demanding aria) and was a bit wooden in recitative. But a lovely, slightly wobbly, voice, and she improved through the evening. All five singers were daring, if not always stylish, in ornamenting repeats.

So. Kings, no, but cardinals. And cabbages? Only one. I had to stop at the grocery for a cabbage before the concert, so brought the thing in with me. It sat beside me in my bike helmet and enjoyed the show. A product of nature, it understood the importance of nurture to performance, and the effects changes in temperature and humidity can have. It heard, but was unfazed by, the problems in the oboes (tuning and perhaps mechanical). Ditto the trumpets, and to a lesser extent the flutes. All these instruments have elements in common with their present-day descendants, but key differences. And it’s the nurture, the day-in, day-out playing of the things, that’s needed. Look at the strings: They sounded on top of their game, some beautiful, well-shaped, dramatic playing.

Fred Holmgren, one of this country’s best baroque trumpeters, once told me he really learned to play the baroque trumpet in an opera pit, doing “Giulio Cesare” every day for a month. You learn to play the thing through repeated exposure to the instrument under slightly different performance conditions — its and yours — and learning how to react when it tries to strangle you. And you sharpen your “period ears” in terms of tuning, balance, articulation.

We need more opportunities for all these players to perform — more bands, more concerts — so the strings have equal partners in the winds and brass. The more opportunities these musicians have, the better they’ll get. I plan to hit Wednesday’s performance at Symphony Center to see how a bit more exposure to “Resurrezione” works for them.

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One Response to “Of cabbages and kings”

  1. stop fascism says:

    Finally a smart blogger-man…I love how you’re thinking…and writing!

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