Posts Tagged ‘baroque band’

Of cabbages and kings

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

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.

‘Lickety-split!’

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

If this week’s performance of Handel’s “Messiah” by the Baroque Band wasn’t the smallest, fleetest ever given in Chicago, I’ll eat my hat.

Four violins, two violas, two cellos, a bass and a harpsichord. Plus two trumpets and timpani at key moments, with conductor/violinist Garry Clarke adding an occasional fifth violin. (The program credited Sally Jackson on bassoon, but neither she nor the instrument were in evidence last night, so I’m guessing the program slipped up.) The choir was 17 voices, and there were four soloists.

At the Grainger Ballroom in Symphony Center, the concert began with the band walking in, taking their positions (standing) and launching straight into the overture. They didn’t stop till the intermission: No pauses for tuning, for soloists to walk on or off, nothing. Same for part II, except for a pause after the “Hallelujah” chorus. It was as if they’d decided they were performing a play.

A drama, in fact. I’ve seldom heard a performance so rhetorical, that paid so much attention to the words, that was so adamant about telling the story, moving it along.

And move it they did. The tempos were fast, but the playing and singing so light and lithe it rarely felt rushed, and the violins’ skittering lines almost made me laugh at several points. The back-and-forth between strings and singers was a delight, a true dialogue.

Bass Benjamin LeClair and the fine trumpeter Bob Rieder gamely raced through “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” but again, despite the pace, the feeling was urgent more than rushing. The dead were raised briskly, but they weren’t tumbled out of — well, not bed, I guess, but Clarke gave them a couple of seconds to collect themselves.

I don’t envy Rieder having to go straight from the aria to “Worthy Is the Lamb” — most versions of “Messiah” give the trumpets a breather between the two. But Clarke wanted to recreate the “Messiah” first heard in Dublin in 1742, and to hear the early versions of several familiar pieces was fascinating, sometimes startling.

The soloists — in addition to LeClair, they were soprano Amy Conn, countertenor Chris Conely and Tenor Trevor L. Mitchell — were nimble and forthright in projecting the text. Conn and Mitchell embellished their parts to dramatic effect without sacrificing the music — not always the case. Mitchell in particular matched restraint and athleticism in presenting both what Handel wrote and what a soloist of Handel’s time was expected to add. Conely had one or two intonational problems, but was no less committed than his cohorts, and displayed a strong, attractive voice.

If the room’s sound was a bit dry, and occasionally unkind to the strings, it was good to the singers. The soloists were easy to hear; I’ve been to concerts where I could see the bass’s lips move, but strained to hear the voice. Here, he could have been sitting next to me.

The chorus was clear, the voices distinct, with no soprano-heavy edge. And I had the sense that they held something back till the “Amen”; there was power in all the choruses — and a dangerous edge to “He trusted in God” — but only at the end did it sound like they cut loose. Which makes sense.

“Messiah” is one of my favorite pieces. I’ve played in it (trumpet), sung in it (bass) and listened to it (LP, CD and iPod) for years. This was the most gripping performance I’ve heard; Clarke ripped through the thing as if he couldn’t wait to tell us the story. And he told it well. “Lickety-split!” said a guy in front of me in the audience at the conclusion, but he said it with a big grin on his face.

I don’t know what Clarke has in mind for the future, but his approach to “Messiah” makes me think opera is not far off, and if Chicago Opera Theater isn’t careful, he’ll eat their pre-1800 lunch. He’s got the verve, he’s got the musical chops, he’s got the core of a band — COT seems to be moving away from old instruments, unless it’s for early stuff — and I’ll bet he’s got the ambition. Well, more power to him. Let’s see what the next concerts (in June, with Australian countertenor David Hansen) hold.