Saturday, March 16, 2013

A tour of Boston's vocal riches with Boston Baroque

Jeptha's Daughter, by Chauncey Bradley Ives
Boston Baroque's intriguing program last weekend, "De Profundis," marked for this venerable organization a renewed focus on the chorus - and as is often the case for conductor Martin Pearlman, it was also built around a musical argument, a "case," if you will.  To be frank, I found that case not entirely convincing, but it was certainly worth a listen (if only more classical programming could boast Pearlman's intellectual rigor) and what's more, the concert not only resurrected a musical figure who has long been neglected in local performance, but offered a kind of survey of local singers as well.

That neglected musical figure is Giacomo Carissimi - a name well-known to choral enthusiasts, as he taught Charpentier and influenced Handel - but not to the general public (perhaps not even the classical public).  I myself had never experienced Carissimi in performance, so I was grateful to hear Jephte, a masterpiece whose impact is hard to over-estimate (it was held up as a model of the nascent oratorio form, and Handel even quoted it in Samson).

Jephte is most famous for its concluding lamentation, which is riven by daringly plaintive dissonances; but the oratorio proved quite effective - and affecting - throughout its length (I'm often struck by just how quickly a new musical form reaches an artistic peak).  The tale is the Biblical version of a myth that has long served composers well (a Cretan variant provides the core of Idomeneo); Jephtha (one of the judges from Judges) promises in prayer that if he is granted victory in battle, he will sacrifice the first thing he sees upon his return home.  Fans of tragic irony will be unsurprised to learn that his beloved daughter greets him before anyone else at his homecoming (that Yahweh - such a joker!).

Pearlman didn't quite conjure the plunging emotional arc that Carissimi has constructed (Jephte is a roller coaster ride from victorious joy to catastrophic grief), but his work with the chorus, which seemed beefed up for the occasion with many of Boston's best singers, was exemplary, and he drew remarkable solos from Owen McIntosh (who's a bit young for Jephte, but made you forget that), as well as Kamala Soparkar, Brenna Wells, Ulysses Thomas, and particularly the reliable Teresa Wakim, whose pure soprano imbued the doomed daughter's lament with a devastating ache.

The concluding chorus, Plorate, filii Israel, was likewise poignantly intense, and did seem to lead seamlessly into the melancholy dissonances of Charpentier's late mass, Missa, Assumpta est Maria. But to these ears as the Charpentier progressed, Pearlman's argument, thoughtful as it was, slowly fell apart; this composer is simply sui generis, and the ingrown complexity of his structures seemed to quickly leave Carissimi far behind.

Don't get me wrong; Missa, Assumpta est Maria has many fascinations - Charpentier always does - but here, as the mass slowly fractured into a mosaic of interlocking solos, it began to lose momentum (which is unusual for a Pearlman performance).  Luckily most of those solos were nevertheless exquisitely performed, again by Wells, McIntosh, and Thomas, who were joined by Bradford Gleim and Jonas Budris, among others.  The full chorus (along with the orchestra) got to strut its stuff in the gorgeous concluding Agnus Dei and Domine Salvum.

Pearlman then took a brief detour into Bach with the oddly lively Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, an early cantata which is supposed to be a kind of comforting elegy (it was written for a funeral).  It's best known for its spare, transparent accompaniment, but for once the Boston Baroque instrumentalists didn't quite sparkle enough; instead the big news was mezzo Katherine Growdon, who looked terrified to be center stage but sang beautifully nonetheless.

At its close the concert returned to its loose thesis, with one of Handel's well-known Chandos Anthems (No. 8).  After the impacted complexity of the Charpentier, I admit Handel felt like a warm, happy bath (even if these anthems aren't in the top drawer of his achievement, and even if their debt to Carissimi is a vague one). We heard once more from Teresa Wakim and Owen McIntosh, who both again did well, while tenor Mark Sprinkle, who had struggled a bit in the Bach, came more into his own.  But the spotlight was stolen by tenor Jonas Budris, whose confident flights into the vocal stratosphere drew startled applause from the house (Budris pulled the same trick with Handel and Haydn last Christmas).  It was a sweet capstone to an evening that above all else demonstrated how high the local vocal talent can fly.

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