The Music of the Baroque continued its series of concerts this year with a celebration of the deaths and lives of various composers. Or at least the anniversaries thereof. Music Director Jane Glover spared no expense in creating this concert, having to contract many performers for the minutest of roles. She also did not spare her own sense of creative programming for this concert, featuring a coronation anthem, a mass, a segment of an opera, and an early Romantic symphony. I think the kitchen sink was also given a prominent role. Unfortunately, such a hodgepodge of music, both in terms of purpose and style, didn’t create the greatest overall effect, but the finale, Mendelssohn’s Italian
For the first time ever, I sat in the balcony at the Harris Theater of Music and Dance, and I can say unequivocally that the acoustics are quite nice at the top. After all, all the sound seems headed in that direction anyway. Also, with the plethora of seats available, it was quite comfortable for everyone up in the rafters. The evening began with Handel’s coronation anthem Zadok the Priest, a five minute piece of bombast for orchestra and chorus. Glover’s opening of the piece, hushed and contemplative, seemed more thoughtful than was necessary, but the rest was performed with the proper intent. For this piece, a third trumpeter was added, never to be seen again. I would have liked for the trumpet section to have stood just to show off their talent more, but alas, that did not occur.
It was followed, with virtually no change to the size of the orchestra, by Haydn’s Mass No.9, the Heiligmesse. I am not fond of mixing liturgical music into secular concerts, but the conductor wanted to highlight the composer’s achievements in an area beyond the symphony. Fair enough, except this particular mass was the wrong choice. This mass is unique in Hadyn’s oeuvre in that it uses the chorus almost exclusively throughout its thirty five minutes. Although Haydn uses all of his exceptional gifts to vary the choral sounds, in addition to the orchestral writing, at the end of the day, it was a thirty five minute piece for orchestra and chorus. Simply put, it was too much of a good thing. Beautiful music and music making abounded in this performance. The strings and winds were very responsive to all the changes the mass required. The sparse solo vocal work was handled nicely by a quartet of soloists from the chorus, beefed up to six in the lovely Et incarnatus
section of the Credo. By the time you get to the Sanctus, your ears are about done however, so I was glad the rest was relatively short, including the oddly peppy Dona nobis pacem.
As a pairing, the Handel and Haydn were not bad, although it presented a rather frigid and Teutonic soundscape. The second half was a definite contrast, a thawing of sorts. It began in a very Baroque world. Harpsichord in the center, violins to the left, lower strings to the right, the rest in the back. Four soloists walked on stage with Madame Glover to perform part of Act IV of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Each soloist had the smallest part possible. For this fifteen minute segment, the majority of which was taken up by trumpet fanfares, a countertenor was hired for all of three minutes, and only in a duet with the alto. Regardless of its excessiveness, the music and performance were exceptional, especially the co-principal trumpets, Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer. They even stood up so that we could know they were featured. It was more fun that way. With this little world now over, a massive overhaul of the stage was undertaken to create room for a Beethoven-sized orchestra. The harpsichord, used only in the preceding piece, was taken away, the chorus risers were pulled forward so the array of winds could sit atop them. They were ready to leave the world of England, the running theme between the three composers so far, and move to Italy.
Felix Mendelssohn, of course, was extremely popular in England, and found inspiration in the British Isles on several occasions. Listening to the Purcell immediately brought to mind Mendelssohn’s overture and incidental music to the same Shakespearean play. Maybe that was too easy a connection for Glover. Maybe it would have made too much sense. Either way, we were presented with a performance of the composer’s Italian Symphony No.4. To my astonishment, it was an admirable rendition. The opening movement was filled with such drive, and such precise playing for all involved, especially the strings which had no place to hide. The string section consisted of thirteen violins, four violas, three ‘celli, and two basses. The cellos were completely outmatched by the mass of sounds. There simply weren’t enough of them. Still, the movement had fire and the contributions of each part were clearly delineated in such a small community of players. The second and third movements were played equally well, although less inspired interpretively, but the fourth movement, now in minor, was the ultimate redemption. Jane Glover conducts in an interesting way, where she highlights the even beats only by waving her right hand from 2 o’clock to 8 o’clock manically. She looks like she is trying to get a spot out of a dirty window she is frantically wiping. Her enthusiasm translated clearly to both the orchestra and the audience, which garnered her a very nice round of applause from a rather pleased audience.
In all, each piece was played wonderfully, and each was worth hearing. It was my first time listening to Haydn’s Mass, as well as the Handel and Purcell. It is just the combination of them that wasn’t as satisfying. Next season for the Music of the Baroque features less Romantic ambitions, and focuses on Handel (Glover is currently writing a book on the man), Bach, Mozart and Haydn. I sort of like this orchestra in this element. It makes sense – no room for the kitchen sink.