Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Boston Baroque rings in the new year

Photo of earlier Boston Baroque performance by Kayana Szymczak.
Boston Baroque always breaks out the bubbly for its New Year's Day concert - both the musical bubbly and the literal bubbly (everybody gets a sip of champagne during intermission).

It's the musical effervescence, however, that has made this annual tradition so locally beloved - although does it count as local anymore, now that it's being carried nationally on public radio? Perhaps not; but what's wonderful is that folks across the country can now get a taste of what only Boston Baroque's fans had experienced until recently - one of the most civilized New Year's parties on the planet.

This year most of the sparkle came courtesy of Giovanni Battisti Pergolesi (below right), the under-sung genius whose early death cut short a career of immense influence despite its brevity; he not only left a permanent mark on sacred music (with a devastating Stabat Mater), but also all but defined opera buffa with La serva padrona (The Servant Mistress), which comprised the core of the Boston Baroque concert.

The 1733 Padrona is actually only an intermezzo - but the impact of its melodic simplicity, and the comic vigor of its commedia plot (in which a fussy bachelor is won over by his servant girl) gave it the stature of a full-blown opera in its day (indeed, whole schools of musical thought battled over it in eighteenth-century France).

A portrait of Pergolesi.
All we see now in this minor masterpiece, of course, is its straightforward sweetness and some beguiling vocal lines, both of which were well-served by the Boston Baroque cast.  The central role of Uberto proved all but perfect for local star David Kravitz, who as Hub opera fans have long known is not only blessed with a sublimely resonant baritone but also boasts hilarious comic chops.  And Kravitz was in fine dramatic form here - and may have never sounded better.

He met his delightful match, however, in the lovely Sarah Heaton, who had stepped into the role of the servant Serpina at a moment's notice, to replace the ailing Courtney Huffman; Heaton was therefore on book throughout (but she turned  this into a witty gesture by sliding her score into a copy of Modern Bride). I've heard Heaton before, in Michael Tippett's wackily overworked Midsummer Marriage, so I was quite glad to get re-acquainted with her here, where she wasn't hamstrung by pretentious symbology, and didn't have to shriek at the top of her lungs to be heard.  Her soprano comes to a ripe bloom at the top, although she could use a bit more power in her lower range; still, hers was a charming performance, and she pitched Serpina's romantic wiles at just the right angle.  There's one more role in La serva padrona, btw - the silent valet Vespone, essayed here by former ART stalwart Remo Airaldi with exasperated flair (and some priceless lip-synching).

Although Pergolesi proved the highlight of the concert, there were brilliant moments throughout: conductor Martin Pearlman brought a light, elegant finish (particularly in its Adagio and closing Allegro movements) to the seventh concerto from Corelli's familiar Opus 6.  Even better was the next rarity, Alessandro Marcello's Concerto for Oboe in D Minor (transcribed by Bach) which featured a deft performance by soloist Marc Schachman on baroque oboe.  Again, it was the Adagio that proved most memorable, with its poignant mood bejeweled by brilliant ornaments from Johann Sebastian himself.  The following George Philip Telemann Concerto for Flute and Recorder should, I think, have been even more transporting, and actually showcased a wonderful performance by soloist Christopher Krueger on baroque flute. The recorder half of Telemann's intertwining duets proved less focused, however, which was surprising given the performer was the brilliant Aldo Abreu.  But Abreu visibly (and of course audibly) blew several notes, and only really came into his own in the dashing final Presto.  So the sparkle came late to this part of the program, but once it arrived, it dazzled nonetheless.

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