Friday, January 7, 2011

More reasons to be happy

Earlier I reported on a "new" New Year's Eve tradition - the Nutcracker at First Night; I was lucky enough the next day to join another local tradition - Boston Baroque's New Year's concert, which every year features an entertaining mix of vocal music, a few period obscurities, and one or two crowd-pleasers.

I'm obviously not the only person in Boston in on this particular secret (and last year's version was a particular hoot) - so it was no surprise that Sanders Theatre was sold out this January 1, which means that people were packed together literally cheek-by-jowl in that glorious gothic pile's rigid pews (I guess back in the day Harvard undergraduates were really undernourished).  To be honest, things were so tight that sometimes it was hard to concentrate on the music; I guess you can't expect a musical organization to sell fewer tickets than it has "seats," but maybe it's time for a third showing of this particular favorite, to accommodate the crowds.

The star of the show this time was the great bass Kevin Deas (at left), who had just lit up Boston Baroque's Messiah a few weeks ago.  Mr. Deas only sang three numbers - from three different periods, in three different styles - but each was wonderful in its own way.  First was the famous Polyphemus aria from Acis and Galatea ("O ruddier than the cherry"), then the rollicking spiritual "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?" (with the baroque orchestra clapping along), and then Kern and Hammerstein's mysteriously moving "Ol' Man River" from Showboat. Deas was in fine form throughout, his deeper-than-deep voice always gracefully evocative, although perhaps "Ol' Man River" proved the most powerful of the set - but then how could it not, as its timeless melody showcases one of Oscar Hammerstein's simplest, and yet greatest, lyrics; this is one of those pieces in which "art song" and "the American songbook" completely overlap.

The rest of the concert was always diverting, but somewhat more variable.  Conductor Martin Pearlman (below right) opened with Corelli's "Christmas Concerto," (Op. 6, No. 8), which he took, as is his wont these days, at a wide variety of tempi.  And as usual, the orchestra's sense of ensemble began to fray a bit at the slowest speeds, but everything came together wonderfully when Pearlman sped up  - first violinist Christina Day Martinson in particular had a field day fiddling in the glorious last movement.

Martinson was likewise on fire in Bach's Concerto for Oboe and Violin (BMV 1060) with period oboist Marc Schachman only a small step behind.  The string playing remained tightly focused in Germiniani's Variations on La follia (Concerto Grosso No. 12, derived from Corelli again) - and the winds, led by Schachman, if anything sounded even better.

Alas, somehow the ensemble seemed to grow a bit winded itself in the lengthy "Water Music" Suite in F Major, which concluded the concert - perhaps this Handel perennial (presented here with the famous "Alla hornpipe" seemingly borrowed from the D Major Suite), was, in its full glory, just too much of a good thing.  And the brass section, which had sparkled on natural trumpet in Messiah, here sounded garbled and out-of-control on the even-more-challenging natural horn. Not that it's ever a chore listening to the "Water Music;" and all in all, the concert glittered with enough high points to convince me I'll have to lose some serious weight if I hope to squeeze into whatever space is left at this party next year!

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