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Symphony
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Symphony
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by Steve Osborn
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Chamber
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Chamber
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Recital
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Symphony
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Choral and Vocal
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by Pamela Hicks Gailey
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CHAMBER REVIEW

Countertenor Eric Jurenas

GIANTS OF THE BAROQUE SHINE IN ABS BELVEDERE CONCERT

by Joanna Bramel Young
Friday, March 1, 2013

The American Bach Soloists (ABS) presented March 1 an intriguing and uncommon set of works by the three most celebrated composers of the Baroque period -- Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. Anticipating another taste of the best, ABS fans filled every seat in acoustically faithful St. Stephen’s church in Belvedere, and they were not disappointed. Not only were the evening’s works exciting and unique, but the performers were of the highest caliber. Music Director Jeffrey Thomas employed two instrumentalists from his superb chamber orchestra to demonstrate their virtuosity in Vivaldi’s rarely heard Concerto for Viola d’amore in D Major and Bach’s Concerto for Oboe d’amore in A Major. The two concertos were sandwiched between two deeply engaging works for chorus, soloists, and orchestra, Vivaldi’s “Beatus vir” and Handel’s “Dixit Dominus.”

The program’s theme was the profound influence of Italian Baroque music on European composition in the early 1700’s. At twenty-one, Handel, already a seasoned composer, having traveled from Germany to Florence, and then in 1706 to Rome where he readily absorbed the Italian style. In her pre-concert lecture, oboe soloist Debra Nagy told the audience that Handel was young and haughty and wanted to impress his Italian hosts; so the “Dixit Dominus,” penned in 1708, served him well. A large-scale dramatic work with five-part choral sections, it was a prime example of his still-burgeoning skills, According to Ms. Nagy, the violinist and composer Corelli was probably the concert master, and brilliant virtuosic music was written for both the violin and the singers.

Vivaldi’s “Beatus vir” (“Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord”) for double choir, soloists, and orchestra opened the program. Vivaldi was master of the ritornello (“return”) form, wherein a theme heard early in the piece is revisited at the end. This form became common throughout Europe during the Baroque era.

In “Beatus vir” Vivaldi called for two small instrumental ensembles playing opposite each other, and a double choir, creating antiphonal effects. The two-soprano duet “Gloria et divitiae” (“Riches and plenteousness”) was especially appealing, opening with two oboes echoed by the violins opposite them. Then one soprano entered, and the other soprano echoed her. There was little counterpoint in this section but the two sopranos taking turns and then singing in unison produced a charming effect. Both Danielle Reutter-Harrah and Kathryn Mueller sang with compelling emotional intensity.

The Concerto for Viola d’amore, with soloist Elizabeth Blumenstock, was next. This reviewer had not heard a viola d’amore for many years. With its rounded “shoulders” and flat back, the instrument looks more like a viol than a rounded-back violin (yet a close cousin) and the instrument has twelve strings -- six bowed and six “sympathetic” strings located beneath the fingerboard, resonating with those above. Ms. Blumenstock played with considerable authority, allowing the ringing quality of the many strings and the richness of the instrument’s tone to shine. Her fortes and pianos sounded as if two different instruments were being played -- one loud and one soft. Ms. Blumenstock can always be counted on to play with great joyousness and brilliance.

After intermission the audience listened to the Bach Concerto for Oboe d’amore and Orchestra. The instrument (an alto oboe) is slightly longer than the Baroque oboe and has a pear-shaped bell, whereas the regular oboe has a flared bell. This gives the d’amore a rounder, deeper, richer tone, perhaps, unfortunately, difficult to hear from the back of the church. Ms. Nagy makes her fingering and breathing appear effortless. Both the Baroque oboe and the d’amore are actually extremely difficult to master, but she played with fluid lyricism imbued with carefully nuanced passion. The slow movement of the concerto, with a sighing 6/8 descending melody, was especially moving.

The final work of the evening was Handel’s brilliant “Dixit Dominus” (“The Lord said unto my Lord”). Here the chorus showed off its versatility. The “Dixit” is operatic in feeling, even though the text is sacred, for the Pope had forbidden the writing of opera and thus composers so inclined wrote their operatic material in the guise of religious works. The young Handel was no exception. In its variety of tone colors the work is stunning. Countertenor Eric Jurenas deserves special mention for his solo “Virgam virtutis” (“The Lord shall send the rod of thy power”). Accompanied by organ, cello, and contrabass, his rich yet imposing high voice could be fully appreciated. The cello added a virtuosic contrasting bass line.

Mr. Thomas brought the audience to the edge of their seats with the striking “Conquassabit!” (“and smite in sunder the heads!”) - the chorus shouting the word -- then silence -- before shouting it once more, over and over, each time like the fall of an axe. The final Tutti chorus and orchestra of the work was for this reviewer the most exciting and forceful performance she has ever heard from this group.

In his program notes Mr.Thomas wrote “Altogether the composition’s immediacy and captivating range of colors and dramatic effects belie its extreme difficulty.” The complexity of this work was evident, but the chorus and orchestra were at the top of their game, delivering a memorable performance -- every word clearly heard. Leaving the church, many audience members simply looked at one another in speechless praise of what they had just heard.