Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Handel with care

The Boston Secession, with Jane Ring Frank, right center. Photos by Stu Rosner.

Last weekend brought another memorable concert from Boston Secession, "Handel in the Strand" - and it's good to see I'm not the only one paying attention to this intrepid chorale these days (the Globe reviewed them again after a long dry spell). This time out, director Jane Ring Frank's program was more focused - which also meant, perforce, that the evening featured fewer wild, weird discoveries than usual. Yet its first half was focused not on Handel but on his most famous competitor, John Gay, whose The Beggar's Opera, a bitingly satiric and influential "ballad opera" (or opera with dialogue rather than recitative) actually replaced Handel's Italianate operas in popularity. Still, the long consideration of airs from Gay was by turns rollicking and ravishing - and even surprisingly romantic, particularly in a set of exquisite "realizations" by Benjamin Britten.

Here Jason McStoots (at left) deployed a classically light, but surprisingly agile and expressive tenor to moving effect in the Britten settings of "Were I laid on Greenland's coast," and "If the heart of a man is depressed with cares." This melancholy made an intriguing contrast with the acerbic selections from Brecht and Weill's more famous reworking, The Threepenny Opera - although the Secession singers proved adept at both modes: McStoots brought a bitter brio to "The Cannon Song," while Marc J. DeMille and Thea Lobo found the cold shrug within "The Instead-of Song."

The second half of the program, however, brought us with a vengeance back to Handel, but in oratorio, rather than opera, mode. Here Frank's contention was clear - that the composer cast a long shadow over choral writing throughout the nineteenth century and beyond - and her selections demonstrated her thesis impeccably. The opening "Sing Ye to the Lord," from Israel in Egypt, featured ethereal top notes from soloist Brenna Wells, and Jason McStoots returned for another passionate turn in "Then shall the righteous shine forth," from Mendelssohn's Elijah (capably conducted by Katherine FitzGibbon). Like the Globe reviewer, I longed for larger forces at times, particularly during the Brahms Triumphlied, but was in general surprised at how evocative the ensemble of strings and organ Frank had recruited to accompany her chorus turned out to be.

The evening ended with a classically quirky Secession flourish - the U.S. premiere of the "Hallelujah!" chorus from Paul Ayres's Messyah, a strangely phase-shifted reconsideration of the Messiah. Here the triumphal thrust of the original was fractured and refracted into several voices hauntingly out of sync - a fiendishly intricate effect which the Secession brought off with cleanly balanced control, perhaps born of their confidence that yes, Handel is still very much with us, and always will be.

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