Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Period passion

Harry Christophers in action.

This is a quick glance back at "Passion in Vienna," last weekend's evening of Mozart, Gluck and Caldara presented by Handel and Haydn. The concert was widely perceived as the actual "premiere" of new Artistic Director Harry Christophers - for after a few cameo appearances since his appointment last year, it was made clear he had at last begun to place his unique stamp on the H&H style.

And boy, had he. I spoke with Christophers just days before the concert, and was surprised to find that almost every stylistic change we had discussed was already at least somewhat in evidence in the concert hall. In a word, Harry knows what he wants, and he knows how to get it. There was a lighter touch in the strings, and a more dancing (almost idiosyncratic) sense of rhythm in the ensemble as a whole. The "phrase," not the "effect," was at the heart of everything - and if you couldn't figure out what the phrase in question was, exactly, then you only had to watch Harry's full-body conducting (a happy regularity among period performance conductors!) to hazard a pretty accurate guess.

There was less of a pronounced difference in the chorus, because Christophers I think has been working with them with more authority and intensity for some time. Their numbers were augmented, however, this time around - yet just as in this winter's Messiah, this larger group was a model of clarity and emotional transparency.

The high point of the program was, unexpectedly, not the Mozart but the Gluck - the sequence from Orfeo ed Euridice in which Orpheus sings his way into the Elysian Fields. I admit I've only seen this opera once before, but I was nevertheless struck by both the drama and musicianship in evidence here. The British countertenor Iestyn Davies, who's a sensation across the pond, made a commanding Orpheus, the chorus countered with a truly chilling reading of the Furies, and the orchestra's evocation of the Elysian Fields was transportingly exquisite.

Indeed, the chorus and orchestra were actually in fine form throughout the evening. The opening obscurity, Caldara's "Crucifixus à 16" was intriguingly lustrous, and Mozart's "Venite Populi" was sung with authoritative dispatch.

But I confess I'm not always wild about Harry's taste in soloists. The quartet in charge of Mozart's C Minor Mass was, I suppose, "capable," as the Globe had it, but not a whole lot more - they certainly didn't match the artistry rising from the orchestra and chorus at their back. Soprano Gillian Keith for some reason came dressed for a cabaret rather than a kyrie (in a slinky black number with peek-a-boo slits) but more to the point, she vocalized in a slightly awkward way that blurred some of her ornamentation, and when she wasn't emoting generically sometimes looked a bit vacant. Mezzo Tove Dahlberg was crisper, and certainly more appropriately poised, but let out a squawk in her duet with Keith that I just couldn't forget, and meanwhile the tenor and baritone seemed to me nondescript. Fortunately the chorus kept us engaged - and in a way, perhaps we're lucky to be in a situation in which their contributions are what we look forward to.

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