Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Bending time's arrow at Boston Baroque

Martin Pearlman
The most recent installment of Boston Baroque's New Directions series, dubbed "Time Curves," played to half a house two weekends ago at Pickman Concert Hall, apparently because some local ball club was clinching the pennant.  (Just kidding, Red Sox Nation!)  Those in attendance, however, were treated to a sampler of musical rarities that moved forward from the baroque to the modern, and then back again.

I wouldn't say that any relativistic artistic effects resulted from that trip - nor were the works in question clearly related in theme or style.  Still, the evening's arc was not unpleasing, and the boomerang structure of the program echoed the internal aesthetics of its centerpieces, De Falla's Concerto for Harpsichord, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Violin and Cello, and Boston Baroque founder Martin Pearlman's own Variations on WoO 77 – Fantasy on a Theme of Beethoven (that's Pearlman at the keyboard, at left).

The first item on the program, Correlli's Trio Sonata, Op. 3, No. 1, was blessed with an appealing quartet of performers - Dan Stepner and Julia McKenzie on violin, and Laura Jeppesen on viola da gamba, with Pearlman on harpsichord - all of whom played not only vividly (McKenzie in close step with Stepner), but also with a sophisticated lilt.  The piece often evinced a sweet eloquence, but alas, it ends rather abruptly, and leaves little sense of lingering import.

What came next was more substantial - Louis-Nicolas Clérambault's Orphée, an eighteenth-century solo cantata (sung by local light Teresa Wakim) a lost form of which the now-obscure Clérambault was apparently a master. And the writing here was certainly strong enough to intrigue - I'd be happy to hear more from this almost-forgotten Frenchman.  Wakim played all the roles (from Orpheus to Pluto to the Stage Manager), to lightly rendered accompaniment by the same quartet that essayed the Corelli.  The results were often affecting, if not quite transporting  - Orpheus's delicate appeal to Pluto's own feelings made the deepest impression, especially as rendered by Wakim in her purer-than-pure soprano.  Oddly enough, the cantata elides the tragedy that we know lies in wait for the poet at the end of the story - Clérambault concludes with a silvery jaunt and songs of "resounding victory that wins tender love!"  Hmmm.

The program then took a giant leap into the rising tide of modernism in the 20th century with De Falla's curious Concerto, which attempts to integrate stabbing Stravinskian energies into older chamber-music textures. At first the resulting mini-modernist sinfonia is somewhat hysterical in tone, but the experiment comes together intriguingly as it proceeds; the lighter, almost bubbling final movement comes off best - especially as played here, by Sarah Brady (flute), Jennifer Slowik (oboe), William Kirkley (clarinet), Julia McKenzie (violin) and Rafael Popper-Keizer (cello), with Pearlman himself at the keyboard. Still, to be honest, there's a balance problem among the instruments that never quite goes away - which made me wonder if the harpsichord might do better at the front of the stage, or perhaps in the center of the ensemble.

Next came Pearlman's own compositions - Variations on Wo077 - Fantasy on a Theme of Beethoven, which turned to be an exploration of melancholic whimsy that seemed very much in synch with this conductor's own sweetly diffident stage presence (in fact I could almost hear Pearlman's voice introducing each variation from the stage).  He's also, of course, an academic - so there was a full course-worth of references in the piece, which ran the gamut from a rag to the Late Romantics and back again.  The piece charmed, of course - particularly as essayed by pianist Donald Berman; the only trouble was that the familiar, fairly simple theme at the base of it all never seemed to go through any actual internal transformation of its own; Pearlman's gambits, delightful as they were, felt more like overlays than insights.

The program ended with one last bagatelle, from Rameau - his Troisìeme Concert from Pìeces de clavecin en concert. Again the performers were in fine form - particularly local musical mainstay Daniel Stepner, who brought a rollicking energy to Rameau's concluding tambourins. It was the perfect cap to a pleasantly light musical evening, and put the appreciative crowd in the mood for a jig of its own, too.

Next for Boston Baroque is Beethoven's Ninth, performed on period instruments this weekend with his rarely-heard "Elegiac Song."

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