Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Both sides now

Boston seems all but hypnotized by the antics of Shepard Fairey at the ICA these days, so it's good to remember that all around us, all the time, real artists are creating real art that does what art is always supposed to do - challenge, touch, and sustain us. A case in point was last Saturday's concert by the Sarasa Ensemble (above left), with guests Dominique Labelle and Michael Chance, under the auspices of the Boston Early Music Festival (which took the program to New York on Monday). I'm familiar with Labelle and Chance, and thought them an intriguing pairing. The good news was that the Sarasa Ensemble proved equally impressive. The concert was one of the most subtly moving evenings of music I've heard in some time, and provided memories I'll treasure for a good while to come.

Not that there wasn't an interesting aural tension between the three points of this musical triumvirate. The Sarasans (yes, I know that makes them sound like characters from Star Trek) are all about sensitive, intelligent attack, and a daring comfort level with the dissonance that sometimes shadows early music (there were some suspensions between the two violins that I'm not sure ever quite resolved). The vocalists, meanwhile, were operating in two slightly different modes - Ms. Labelle, whose sparkling instrument is as light and radiant now as it was when she was starring in Peter Sellars's Mozart operas twenty years ago, is a kind of power soprano (at least in an intimate setting) who operates within the familiar framework of classical interpretation. Mr. Chance (below right), by way of contrast, is something of a postmodern vocal actor, a countertenor whose voice is less forceful than Ms. Labelle's, but hauntingly gorgeous, and whose real specialty is conjuring mood through intelligent phrasing and highly literate emotion.

So to put it bluntly, Ms. Labelle was sun, and Mr. Chance shade, in their first duets, which included exquisite performances of selections from Handel's Teseo and his cantata "Tanti strali al sen mi scocchi." Labelle delighted and impressed; Chance beguiled and convinced. But Mr. Chance really came into his own when he went solo, with songs from Purcell's The Fairy Queen, a masque drawn from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The first thing that struck you about these pieces was that Purcell's librettist was, well, not Shakespeare. The second was that Chance managed to make the songs sound almost as if they were by the Bard, by capturing Purcell's langorous evocation of nightfall precisely, and with startling conviction. I can't think offhand of a more thoughtful vocal performance I've heard in years; it was spellbinding.

The instrumental portions of the first half of the program were no less exciting (harpsichordist Maggie Cole performed with particularly tripping brilliance a little-heard suite of dances from Handel). But these paled next to the intensity of the second half, which was given over to Pergolesi's famous Stabat Mater, his suite of songs that both depict and invoke the stricken Mary at the foot of the Cross. Here the purity of Labelle's tone was piercing - although we sensed her pushing her volume at times, just to show what she could do, as it were. Chance was more circumspect, but perhaps more actually devastating. The piece is itself simultaneously luminous and crushing, and somehow Labelle and Chance seemed to nearly embody this duality; it was hard to imagine a fuller evocation of its terrible vision.

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