Boston Baroque has in recent years created its own New Year's tradition of light, often comic, concerts performed on both the holiday's eve and the day itself. This year's heartwarming, mostly-Mozart program proved particularly welcome, given the gloomy weather and the current general mood. And it made me wonder yet again why the program's hilarious secret weapon, baritone David Kravitz, isn't a bigger star. In a just world, he'd be crooning on the radio and featured on local television - particularly as he's obviously a clever, witty guy (offstage, he's a former SCOTUS clerk, and is behind the screamingly liberal Blue Mass Group blog, which you should read). But because even public TV can't be bothered much with our city's culture, he's only famous among those of us who can squeeze into his live performances.
Oh, well - lucky us. In the opening Bastien and Bastienne - a short "singspiele" written by Mozart when he was all of twelve - Kravitz (left, Globe photo by Lisa Poole) sang the role of a "supposed sorcerer," while he took the lead (and only) part in the program's finale, Domenico Cimarosa's hilarious The Music Director. Kravitz excelled in both, and sang throughout with his customary command, but he was truly peerless in the Cimarosa. In the Mozart, his worldly-wise magician was pure charlatan, when it might have been more piquant to throw a genuine daftness into the mix (the piece was, after all, supposedly commissioned by Anton Mesmer, later to be parodied in Cosi fan tutte). In the witty Music Director, however, Kravitz was utterly in his element - not only was his sound gorgeous, but his characterization was superb, proving that he can slice the comic ham with the best of 'em.
But back to Bastien and Bastienne, which is a sweetly melodic version of the kind of genre piece popular in Mozart's day: a country lad is seduced away from his lass by an unseen "city girl," but with the help of an eccentric magician, said country girl wins her boy back. Here neither Bastien nor Bastienne was particularly pastoral in look or type, but soprano Kristen Watson and tenor Lawrence Jones acquitted themselves well in the roles nonetheless - the lissome Watson with a silvery tone and a broad-but-not-too-broad comic attack, and Jones with a more sincere acting style and a light but pure tenor. Their stage movement was clever and apt - Boston Baroque has almost made a science out of this - and the music, though unsurprisingly a bit generic (the guy was 12!) was actually quite varied, and was played by Boston Baroque with sympathetic verve. Which made the performance not only perfectly charming, but also imbued with some deeper interest, as the piece is filled with hints and foreshadowings of the themes Mozart would spend his later operatic life developing.
Between these two comic bagatelles Pearlman had programmed the composer's familiar 40th Symphony - although as his wont, in a variant rarely heard, the "original" version (which lacks the clarinet line). This was the most serious music-making of the program, and the orchestra approached it with precision and spirit, while Pearlman offered his usual graceful insights. Without the clarinets, needless to say, the winds have a cleaner, but more forceful, profile in the symphony, and Pearlman drew out the dissonances and hints of suspension that undergird the slower second and third movements, so that the work seemed (as many modern critics would have it) highly dynamic and melancholic, and seemed to ramify both backward in time toward the baroque, and forward to the impending romantic movement. Pearlman didn't quite make me forget those clarinets, I'm afraid, but he certainly made his case.
Then Kravitz returned as The Music Director, singing his own translation of Cimarosa's witty take on an instantly recognizable musical type - a likeably pompous conductor (who assures us, apropos of nothing, that he's "not a diva") stuck grappling with an unruly orchestra, indeed an orchestra that comes in at so many wrong times and places that Kravitz was soon muttering that “I’ve a strong suspicion there’s another conductor.” Meanwhile Mr. Pearlman, baton in hand, was just five feet away. He soon got his, however - his own signature gestures found their way into Kravitz's body language before the show was over. But no one seemed more tickled by this than Pearlman himself. The only question in any one's mind at the final standing ovation was - how will they ever top this next year?