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Choral and Vocal
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CHORAL AND VOCAL REVIEW
American Bach Soloists / Friday, February 26, 2016
Jeffrey Thomas, conductor. Anna Gorbachyova, soprano; Arron Sheehan, tenor; William Sharp, baritone; Maria Christina Cleary, harp

Soprano Anna Gorbachyova

HANDEL A FEAST AT ABS BELVEDERE CONCERT

by Joanna Bramel Young
Friday, February 26, 2016

American Bach Soloists (ABS) once again enchanted a full house in Belvedere’s St. Stephen’s Church February 26 with an exciting, varied, virtuosic performance, this concert offering works solely by Handel.

Germany-born Handel made his way to England after an extended stay in Italy, where he was supreme in the writing of Italian opera. After being wooed to England, however, he turned from opera to the more popular English tradition of the oratorio. Comfortably working in this genre, Handel was drawn to the dramatic possibilities of Dryden’s ode Alexander’s Feast; or, the Power of Music. Hosted by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, in the Persian capital, the feast as recounted by Dryden enabled Handel to musically highlight a sequence of emotional states as Alexander is unknowingly led through them by Timotheus, singing and playing the lyre. Collaborating with Thais, Alexander’s wife, Timotheus ultimately evokes Alexander’s burning desire to avenge the Greeks slain in earlier Persian wars, and Persepolis is torched.

Handel’s realization of the tale gave ABS the opportunity to demonstrate how complex the composer’s music can be, as through choruses, recitatives, and arias the listener accompanied Alexander from spiritual uplift to the bloody culmination.

A variety of instruments also added to the rich fare, the string orchestra being enhanced by oboes, trumpets, bassoons, horns, recorders, timpani, harpsichord, and Irish harp. The harp (a copy of a 17th century instrument) visually dominated the stage with its graceful wooden curves, rising above the musician’s heads. Besides being used for continuo in Alexander’s Feast and the Concerto Grosso in C Major, it was also the featured instrument in the intriguing Concerto for Harp in B-Flat Major, enabling Irish harpist Maria Christina Cleary to demonstrate her crisp elfin touch and mature musicality.

Following Handel’s original programming, the Harp Concerto and the Concerto Grosso were incorporated into the oratorio itself, the former near the beginning of Part One of Alexander’s Feast, and the latter right after the intermission, before Part Two.

Jamie Apgar, a countertenor singing alto in the superb chorus, delivered a pre-concert lecture concerning the importance once ascribed to music in moving the passions--in the case of Alexander’s Feast, toward fervor. In his program comments, Jeffrey Thomas notes that Dryden, the librettist, designed his work to show how the Christian St. Cecelia could inspire spiritual well-being and more noble deeds. Hence the last two choruses in the work invoke her name: “At last Divine Cecilia came, inventress of the Vocal Frame...”

The vocal soloists were soprano Anna Gorbachyova (in her ABS debut), tenor Aaron Sheehan, and baritone William Sharp, a masterful ABS regular. Ms. Gorbachyova’s voice was splendidly rich and powerful, and could be easily heard above the carefully modulated orchestra. Mr. Sheehan used his strong, eloquent tenor to further the story line in his recitatives, and the arias he sang were glorious. In the charming Air with Chorus he sang “Happy, Happy, Happy Pair!” the Chorus finishing with “None but the Brave deserves the Fair,” referring to the love between Alexander and Thais.

The immaculately honed Chorus served as the guests at the Banquet, or the “crowd.” In “The List’ning Crowd admire the lofty Sound...” the Chorus sang at full volume with the orchestra, shaking the church’s rafters. Throughout, the Chorus’s articulation and intonation were unequalled, even down to the triple pianissimo conclusion.

In the tenor Recitative “the praise of Bacchus, then, the sweet Musician sung,” two matched horns (valveless “hunting horns”) sounded jubilant fanfares on the words “Sound the trumpets, beat the drums.” And in the bass Aria “Bacchus, ever Fair” the two horns played an extended virtuosic duet. Bringing fresh, unique color to the scene with their earthy, evocative horns, Paul Avril and Loren Tayerle demonstrated highly skilled handling of these challenging, rarely heard instruments.

Throughout the performance conductor Jeffrey Thomas drew every ounce of expression from the ensemble. In the Air “He sung Darius Great and Good, by two severe a Fate,” Ms. Gorbachyova plumbed the depths of sadness, with the Chorus echoing her deeply moving words, ending with “On the bare Earth expos’d he lies, With not a Friend to close his Eyes.” In the Air “Softly sweet, in Lydian Measures,” the soprano and cellist William Skeen combined in a hauntingly beautiful duet. An essential part of the “backbone” of the continuo section, Mr. Skeen must have delighted in the opportunity to shine on his exuberant, brilliant solo.

After the tenor Air comparing war and love, the always supple chorus burst forth on the words “The Many rend the Skies, with loud Applause; So Love was crown’d, but Musick won the Cause.” Immediately following the great explosion of raw emotion, the soprano Gorbachyova sang one of the most poignant and moving airs of the evening: “The Prince, unable to conceal his Pain, Gaz’d on the Fair ...and sigh’d and look’d, sigh’d and look’d...” As if controlled by invisible strings, Jeffrey Thomas’s hands gently led the soprano and two solo violins through long, expressive pauses punctuating the repeated phrase “And sigh’d and look’d, sigh’d and sigh’d again....”

Part Two of Alexander’s Feast, following the delightful Concerto Grosso in C Major, opened with the resounding “...Break his Bands of sleep asunder,” which is intended to jolt the sleeping Alexander from his drunken slumber. Trumpets, fortissimo timpani, full Chorus, and orchestra combined to wake the dead in a surging wave of sound and pounding rhythm.

Mr. Sharp was called upon for only a few arias in Alexander’s Feast, but his Air “Revenge, Revenge, Timotheus cries, See the Furies arise...” was worth the price of admission. The powerful orchestral support (trumpets resounding) for “And the Sparkles that flash from their Eyes ...” fell away at “Behold a gastly Band,” the instrumentation changing completely, with only horns, bassoons, cellos, and continuo accompanying the words. Repeating the opening “Revenge,” the full trumpet-led orchestra entered to conclude the Air. Mr. Sharp’s arresting runs up and down the scale enlivened the dramatic text.

The Concerto in B-Flat for Harp was a delight, Ms. Cleary is indeed a master of her rare and instrument. This unusual work began with unaccompanied harp and paired recorders played lyrically by oboists Debra Nagy and Stephan Bard. The strings then entered, balancing beautifully with the harp. In the opening Allegro Ms. Cleary negotiated flowing sixteenth-note passages with sinuous fluency; and then In the Larghetto recorders and orchestra entered, followed by unaccompanied harp. Ms. Cleary’s cadenza, a tapestry of quick arpeggios, segued into a scintillating Allegro in quick triple time.

The four-movement Concerto Grosso in C Major, which opened the second half of the concert, featured two violins with cellist William Skeen. Consummate violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock led, and shared the spotlight with Jude Ziliak, an alumnus of the ABS Historical Performance Academy at the San Francisco Conservatory. The two violins and cello interacted with flawless nuanced balance and intonation, entrancing the audience.

The American Bach Soloists’ masterful performance of three contrasting Handel works, the composer born the same year as Bach, demonstrated the far-ranging prowess of one of the greatest composers of his age.

The next ABS concert will take place in April, with Easter and Ascension Oratorios by Bach, Buxtehude, and Kuhnau.