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Recital
GLITTERING PIANISM IN LI'S OAKMONT RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, April 11, 2019
Piano prodigies have always been a fascination for the music public, and the greatest of them (some were Mozart, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Saint Saëns, Hofmann) went on to legendary fame. George Li, who made is local debut at a Music at Oakmont recital April 11, was a remarkable recent keyboard prodigy t...
Symphony
SO CO PHIL'S SEASON CLOSER WITH EXPANSIVE PROKOFIEV 5TH IN JACKSON
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 07, 2019
Closing their 20th season with their usual programming aplomb, the Sonoma County Philharmonic played a provocative set of concerts April 6 and 7 in the Jackson Theater, the Orchestra’s new home at the Sonoma Country Day School by the Sonoma County Airport. Local composer Nolan Gasser’s Sonoma Overt...
Choral and Vocal
SISTINE CHAPEL INSPIRATION FOR THE TALLIS SCHOLARS IN WEILL HALL
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Friday, April 05, 2019
Returning to Weill Hall April 5 after a seven year absence, the ten singers of the Tallis Scholars brought the sacred choral tradition of Palestrina and his contemporaries to an audience of delighted music lovers. Under the direction of Peter Phillips, the 1973 founder of the group, the program was...
Symphony
AUTUMNAL SIBELIUS 7TH HIGHLIGHTS VSO'S SEASON CLOSING CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, March 31, 2019
Closing their 87th Season March 30 and 31 the Vallejo Symphony has moved from a single weekend concert to a set of two, and the late March response was two full houses in the charming downtown Vallejo Empress Theater. Conductor Marc Taddei opened the Sunday program with a rousing performance of B...
Recital
SHARED INSTRUMENTAL BEAUTY IN VIEAUX-MEYERS WEILL HALL CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Saturday, March 30, 2019
Exciting timbral sound and intricate counterpoint, made possible when two artists with complementary instruments play together, were richly explored by violinist Anne Akiko Meyers and guitarist Jason Vieaux March 30 in Weill Hall. Whether in close harmony, or unison, or weaving separate melodies to...
Chamber
RARE MAHLER QUARTET AT MILL VALLEY CHAMBER CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, March 24, 2019
Piano quartets are relatively rare in the classical literature, and there are only about 40 compositions for the combination of piano, violin, viola and cello, mostly from the Romantic period of the mid to late 1800s. It therefore was special March 24 to hear three great works of this medium, perfor...
Symphony
AMERICAN CLASSICS SPARKLE UNDER KAHANE’S BATON
by Steve Osborn
Saturday, March 16, 2019
Jeffrey Kahane, the Santa Rosa Symphony’s former conductor, returned to the Weill Hall podium on Saturday night, and the results were expectedly wonderful. The concert of American classics was by turns playful (Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”), emotional (Barber’s violin concerto) and triumphant (...
Chamber
FLORESTAN TRIO'S MENDELSSOHN AT SPRING LAKE VILLAGE CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Friday, March 08, 2019
Spring Lake Village’s monthly concerts usually clock in under an hour, but the March 8 Florestan Trio’s performance was more extended as so much good music was on tap for the 125 residents attending at Santa Rosa’s premiere retirement residence facility. Four short pieces made up the first half, be...
Chamber
TILDEN TRIO'S BOHEMIAN ENERGY AT DOMINICAN CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, March 03, 2019
Hard on the heels of the Trio Navarro’s late February concert in Sonoma State’s Schroeder Hall, Northern California’s other premiere resident piano trio, the Tilden, played an equally convincing program March 3 in Dominican University’s Angelico Hall. Clearly each hall’s acoustics, stage pianos and...
Recital
24 SONGS IN A MENKE-THOMPSON RECITAL ODYSSEY
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, February 23, 2019
Sonoma County pop and country singing enjoys continued popularity but it rare to see a professional classical vocal concert announced. Diva Ruth Ann Swenson was once a local star, but she has long departed and not much virtuoso recital singing can be found in the North Bay. But the exception to th...
CHORAL AND VOCAL REVIEW
MasterCard Performance Series / Saturday, January 25, 2014
The English Concert. Harry Bicket, conductor. Julian Wachner, Dorothea Röschman, Sara Connolly, David Daniels, Curt Streit and Neal Davies

English Concert Performing Handel

HANDEL'S ORATARIO THEODORA SPARKLES IN WEILL HALL CONCERT

by Joanna Bramel Young
Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Weill Hall audience January 25 was treated to a superb performance of Handel’s oratorio Theodora. For that we can thank the English Concert (not Consort), a highly polished baroque orchestra consisting of strings, oboes, bassoons, flute, horns, trumpets, harpsichord, organ and theorbo, along with five celebrated vocal soloists. Conductor Harry Bicket, artistic director of the Concert since 2007, expertly guided the orchestra in flawless support of both the soloists and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, twenty-four singers directed by Julian Wachner. The choir is considered one of New York City’s finest vocal ensembles and the Episcopal parish that is its home was founded in 1697.

Consisting of three acts with two intermissions, Theodora is unquestionably long. Unfortunately it seems that a full program of baroque music performed by these sterling musicians lacked sufficient appeal to fill Weill Hall. When the first notes were heard, the hall was perhaps two-thirds full; and each intermission brought more empty seats. It can be said that those who left early missed some true gems. In contrast, I attended a concert the previous evening in Belvedere’s Saint Stephens Church by a similar group of equal quality - the American Bach Soloists (baroque orchestra, chorus, and soloists) - and nearly every seat was filled until the final note sounded. At Weill Hall, audience members who had remained until the end rose joyfully to their feet and showed gratitude for the evening’s pleasures.

Conducting from the harpsichord, Mr. Bicket exhibited both energy and restraint. The opening Overture began in the traditional stately, heavily dotted style favored in the eighteenth century, and then erupted into a rousing fast section. The orchestra played with great precision and clarity, and succeeded in altering mood from stately to exuberant in an instant. Fast tempos were brilliantly played, leaving me deeply impressed by the facility of all the musicians.

The recitatives, which introduced each aria (or air, as Handel called it), were supported by a continuo of harpsichord or organ, theorbo and bass strings. An impressive-looking instrument, the theorbo is a large lute with a six-foot fingerboard, which enables it to produce gloriously resonant low notes.

The opening recitative and air were sung by bass-baritone Neal Davies, as Valens, who established his credentials as the villain of the story with his emphatic statement “Whoso disdains to join the sacred rites shall feel our wrath in chastisement, or death ....” Like all the soloists, Mr. Davies sang flawlessly; and he chose to dramatize his lines, making the listener want to hiss his evil ways. Countertenor David Daniels, (Didymus), the lover of Princess Theodora, exhibited a voice beautiful and powerful, carefully nuanced in both high and low registers. His da capo aria “The raptur’d soul defies the sword, secure of virtue’s claim...” was exquisite in its execution. Hearing such high notes coming from a man with a full beard and a robust chest must have surprised many listeners.

The role of Septimius, a Roman official friendly to the Christians, was performed by Kurt Streit (a tenor different from the one named in the program) who nonetheless had a stellar résumé. All the soloists’ résumés read like a Who’s Who of opera: in demand throughout Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The choir was introduced early with the “Chorus of Heathens,” as they sang “And draw a blessing down...” accompanied by two brilliantly played baroque trumpets. After enjoying the stirring trumpets a few minutes into the oratorio, I was anticipating many more instrumental solos; but Handel tended not to feature solo instruments as extensively as Bach. For example, the oboes were only part of the “tutti” sections of the orchestral passages. A baroque flutist, not part of the orchestra, was featured in only two pieces half way through the work, and then was never heard again. In an orchestral interlude the flute played one soft held note; then the orchestra answered in a charming passage. Two horns were featured with the “Chorus of Heathens” with the words “while sweeter than the trumpets sound. ...” Like baroque trumpets, natural horns are extremely difficult to play, but these musicians made everything sound effortless. In the early to mid-twentieth century many of these baroque instruments were “resurrected”; but years passed before many of them were mastered; and now one no longer expects an occasional sour note from early brass. Nowadays young musicians begin their music studies on these instruments, and the most gifted among them develop the technique necessary to play them well.

Soprano Dorothea Röschmann sang the role of Theodora and Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano, portrayed her friend Irene. For Röschmann’s air “Fond, flatt’ring world, adieu!” the violins, playing in unison, echoed her words in sighing phrases. One of the most beautiful airs in the oratorio was sung by Ms. Connolly, “As with rosy steps the morn....” Playing pianissimo the strings allowed her voice to shine through. The balance between voice and orchestra was perfection.

Valens commands Septimius to tell Christian Theodora she must prostitute herself as punishment for not participating in a pagan ritual. His coloratura singing dramatized the words “Dread the fruits of Christian folly...” in a da capo aria. Theodora answers “Angels, ever bright and fair, take, oh take me to your care.” Her pleading “take me” is echoed by the strings to a moving effect.

Throughout the oratorio the soloists shone in their many recitatives and airs. Each had brilliant coloratura passages to negotiate, and all were executed effortlessly. Carefully rehearsed, the chorus achieved gratifying nuances. Near the end of the work Handel gave the chorus and orchestra the chance to perform a Bach-like great fugue in “Blest be the hand.” Theodora then sang unaccompanied, after which the chorus entered again, concluding the highly engaging fugue.

The work concluded with the choir, serving as the “Chorus of Christians,” singing a chorale reminiscent again of Bach: “O love divine, thou source of fame, of glory, and all joy!” The martyred hero and heroine have now risen to Heaven singing the lovely duet “Thither let our hearts aspire...and tune the lyre of the blissful holy choir.”

Theodora was scored to include tympani, but none were in evidence. They likely would have added vigor to the overall sound and was an unfortunate omission. Otherwise, the performance was profoundly satisfying, rich in pleasing airs that only Handel could create. He considered Theodora, written after Solomon and Susanna, his favorite oratorio; yet it was a failure when first performed in 1750. According to Wikipedia the librettist Morell quoted Handel as saying, “The Jews will not come to it because it is a Christian story; and the ladies will not come because it is a virtuous one.”