Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, American Bach Soloists (ABS) began the Festival portion of its 2016 Festival & Academy. This year’s theme is An Italian Journey, focusing on both major Italian composers prior to 1750 and those composers who made special trips to learn more about the making of music in Italy. Last night’s concert was evenly divided by two of those composers, one from each category. The Italian was Antonio Vivaldi; and the “visitor” was George Frideric Handel.
The story of Handel’s visit to Italy is, to say the least, fascinating. In 1702 the seventeen-year-old Handel began the study of law at the University of Halle; but, while there, he earned a one-year appointment as a church organist. By 1703 Handel abandoned his law studies to accept a position as violinist and harpsichordist in the orchestra for the Oper am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg. At the age of nineteen, he wrote his first opera, Almira, which was performed in Hamburg in 1705. At least one member of the Medici family (scholars still argue over which and how many) invited Handel to visit Italy. Handel accepted the invitation as an opportunity to learn more about Italian music, particularly with regard to vocal writing for the opera.
Unfortunately, Handel arrived in Rome during a period when papal decrees had closed the public theaters and banned the performance of opera. Thus, the refinement of his skills in writing vocal music were confined to liturgical music and oratorios on sacred themes. However, he also wrote pastoral cantatas for musical gatherings in the palaces of three cardinals, Pietro Ottoboni, Benedetto Pamphill, and Carlo Colonna. The last of these invited him to compose music for the Carmelite order at Santa Maria di Monte Santo to be performed at the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
The result was the HWV 232 setting of Psalm 110, Dixit Dominus (the Lord said). This was probably intended for a Vespers service, since the Psalm setting concludes with the “Gloria Patri” of the Trinitarian doxology (“Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be; and for generations of generations. Amen.”). Fortuitously, the choice of Psalm provided Handel with the perfect opportunity to exercise his operatic chops. What the Lord is saying in this Psalm amounts to a no-holds-barred blood-and-guts account of what he will do to those who oppose him. By the time Handel had reached “he shall fill the places with the dead bodies; and smite in sunder the heads over divers countries,” he was clearly reveling in a variety of rhetorical devices to illustrate every vengeful word.
Last night the American Bach Choir joined the ABS instrumentalists for as vivid an account of this “operatic sacred music” as one could anticipate. Contributing vocal soloists were sopranos Mary Wilson and Clara Rottsolk, alto Judith Malafronte, tenor Kyle Stegall, and baritone William Sharp. The conducting by ABS Music Director Jeffrey Thomas provided a crisp account of both the text and the interplay of a string section that included two separate parts for both violins and violas. This was a reading that captured all of the dramatic skills that Handel had hoped to cultivate while in Italy, and it made for a vigorous conclusion to a splendid evening.
HWV 232 was preceded by the HWV 240 motet Saeviat tellus inter rigores (let the earth rage amid austerities), an anonymous text in praise of the Carmelite order. This could have been included as an alternative for a hymn in a Vespers service at Santa Maria di Monte Santo. However, Handel scored his setting of the text for soprano and an ensemble that included two oboes along with the strings and continuo. It is unclear whether the Carmelites would have had such resources at their disposal, not to mention a vocalist to meet the virtuosic challenges of the soprano line (yet another example of Handel honing his operatic skills “by other means”). (Also, the motet does not concluded with a “Gloria Patri.”) Fortunately, Wilson was up to the demands of every one of Handel’s virtuosic twists, turns, and leaps into the highest register; and she was well matched by the oboe work of Debra Nagy and Stephen Bard. The Handel half of the program began with the HWV 238 Nisi Dominus (except the Lord), a setting of Psalm 127, which, because of its “Gloria Patri” conclusion, more likely could have been part of a Carmelite Vespers service.
The first half of the program was devoted to works that Vivaldi probably composed after Handel had moved on from his visit to Italy, most likely between 1713 and 1720. The major work was the D major setting of the Gloria text from the Mass, using energetic passages for oboe (Nagy) and trumpet (John Thiessen) to capture the laudatory spirit of the text. In contrast to Handel’s use of moderately long sections for setting entire Psalm verses or stanzas of a hymn, Vivaldi tended to work in shorter segments on a phrase-by-phrase basis. The result is an account of the Mass text that goes by at an almost rapid clip, as if the joyous spirit of the text can barely keep up with itself. A somewhat more relaxed setting could be found in the Salve Regina antiphon that opening last night’s concert. This again featured Wilson’s impeccable soprano singing, this time frequently in dialog with a solo violin performed by Elizabeth Blumenstock. In many respects the Salve Regina almost amounted to one of Vivaldi’s concertos, coupling the violin with a soprano rather than another violin. It was the sort of composition that made it easy to understand why Johann Sebastian Bach should have taken such a great interest in Vivaldi’s music.