Yesterday afternoon at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, the San Francisco Early Music Society (SFEMS) presented a program by Archetti entitled Concerti per il Santissimo Natale: Baroque Christmas Music for Soprano, Trumpet, and Strings. As its name implies to those who know a bit of Italian, Archetti is a string ensemble directed jointly by violinist Carla Moore and John Dornenburg, who plays violone. The repertoire is pre-Classical; and yesterday’s performers also included violinists Anthony Martin, Linda Quan, and Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo, violist Aaron Westman, harpsichordist Davitt Moroney, and cellist Tanya Tomkins (filling in for Elizabeth Reed, who was indisposed due to illness). As the title of the program implied, there were also two guest artists, soprano Clara Rottsolk and trumpeter Kathryn Adduci.
The program was framed by two arias by George Frideric Handel at the beginning and a solo cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach at the conclusion. Rottsolk also sang a Nativity-based solo cantata by Alessandro Scarlatti just before the intermission. Instrumental selections were concertos by Francesco Manfredini and Giuseppe Torelli, both explicitly associated with the Nativity, as well as a concerto by Georg Philipp Telemann with solo parts for trumpet, violin, and cello.
Neither of the Handel arias was explicitly written for the Christmas season. “Eternal Source of Light Divine” came from the HWV 74 ode written to celebrate the birthday of Queen Anne; and “Let the Bright Seraphim” was composed for the HWV 57 oratorio Samson. These were sung as a “set,” linked together by a transitional harpsichord solo (which may well have been improvised but based on period-appropriate tropes) taken by Moroney. Together they made for an effective contrast, the meditative introspection of the former leading to the jubilant exaltation of the latter. This allowed the audience to appreciate the full breadth of Rottsolk’s expressiveness from subdued to joyous, and she effectively captured just the right mood in both cases. The same could be said of her approach to Bach, which included not only a similar contrast of emotional dispositions but also required her to sing the chorale line in an aria that was basically a chorale prelude. In addition, the balance across voice, trumpet, and strings was always effectively maintained, this in spite of the fact that the First Unitarian sanctuary is a bit cavernous in contrast to that of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, where most early music recitals are held.
The Nativity theme of the program was established through the use of movements in the pastorale form. This is usually in 6/8 time taken at a relatively slow (but not lugubrious) tempo. (Bach BWV 590 is a four-movement organ piece whose first movement is in this form.) The Scarlatti selection was actually called “Cantata Pastorale;” and its final movement is in pastorale form. However, both Scarlatti’s rhetoric and the interpretation by Archetti made this movement sound more like the sort of gigue that concludes an instrumental suite. Thus, the usual connotation of a lullaby gave way to a more jubilant celebration of the Nativity. The more traditional sense of a pastorale could be found in the opening of the Manfredini selection, the last of the twelve concerti grossi published as his Opus 3. That sense could also be found in the Torelli concerto grosso, the sixth from his Opus 8 collection of twelve.
The solo work in the Telemann concerto was not particularly balanced. Almost all of it was given to the violin part, taken by Moore, which abounded with virtuoso tropes. Tomkins had several opportunities to join Moore in those passages, but this was one situation in which proper balance was never quite achieved. Since Tomkins generally brings rich and vigorous sonorities to her playing, one has to wonder if this was a case in which the acoustics were working against the players. Adduci clearly had no trouble with the acoustics, but both Bach and Handel had definitely provided her with more interesting solo lines.
Nevertheless, the shortcomings of the afternoon were definitely few in number, making for a thoroughly engaging dose of holiday spirits that eschewed any of the “usual suspects.”