Seattle Baroque opens its season with flair

On hearing Seattle Baroque Orchestra’s season opening concert at Town Hall Saturday night, my first thought was how well the group sounds in here.

Although spotty in places, the acoustics are warm and with a reverberation which enhances but leaves the sound clear. SBO has moved around a bit in its quest for a good place to play. I hope it will remain here in what is a good pairing with the hall. This season, Seattle Baroque will give one performance of each program, and the hall was quite full.

My second thought was that Seattle Baroque would sound good anywhere. This year, it has back its two founders: violinist Ingrid Matthews, returning from a year’s sabbatical to lead with her usual appealing persona and playing with her usual fine musicianship, and the remarkable harpsichordist Byron Schenkman, who has spent the past few years in New York.

The program, “Handel Under the Influence,” showcased that composer with Corelli and Purcell, each a generation older than him and in whose countries he spent formative years. Indeed, he ended up remaining in England for the rest of his life.

There was also an unusual work on the program a new “old” work by University of Washington music history student Justin Henderlight, an oboist who has studied harpsichord with Schenkman and who has been composing in Baroque style since seventh grade.

No one who didn’t know it would have guessed his Concerto Grosso No.1 was written any time but the 17th century except for one thing. It was closely in the style of the period and charming to hear, but in the passacaglia movement, where there is always a repeated bass line, Henderlight’s bass line had an extra note in the phrase which would never have been there several centuries ago. I wasn’t the only one trying to hear exactly how it fitted in, an enjoyable mystery without the score to look at. Henderlight was on hand to receive well-deserved applause.

Concerti grossi by Corelli and Handel also graced the program. In these there is always a small group of solo musicians alternating with the main group, usually two violins, cello and harpsichord. Violinist Tekla Cunningham, a solo performer in her own right, played with Matthews like a matched set, while cellist Nathan Whittaker performed prominent, florid roles with panache. Matthews gave a fine performance of Handel’s Violin Concerto in B Flat, where in the last movement is a solo passage, the beginning of what later became the cadenza.

As always, Seattle Baroque played with conviction, even passion, with energy and excitement where warranted, and with gentleness and room for imaginative ornamentation. This was an upbeat program, excellently played.

The concert was also the occasion for launching Seattle Baroque’s new CD, Handel’s Harp, on which has been gathered every known work, not many, where Handel wrote a prominent harp part. There were few accomplished harpists then, but in London, Handel had a couple or three Welsh harpists for whom he could write. Maxine Eilander plays the harp and soprano Cyndia Sieden sings the arias.

Lutenist Stephen Stubbs, who directed the project and wrote the informative notes, has found references to works where Handel might have used the harp interchangeably with another instrument, and he has included these as well on the CD and arranged others which were also arranged in Handel’s time.

The result is a delightful and unusual CD with two harp concertos, arias with harp obbligato and two solo harp pieces from Handel’s operas. I particularly liked the solo Symphony from “Saul” and the aria “Tune your harps to cheerful strains” with harp and oboe obbligato. The CD can be found at AtmaClassique.com or is available from Seattle Baroque.

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