Saturday, March 4, 2017

Jonathan Cohen Explores Eighteenth-Century Transitions with Philharmonia Baroque

The title of last night’s concert at Herbst Theatre by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) was Operatic Heroes. This was intended to highlight the appearance of countertenor Iestyn Davies as visiting soloist to perform arias for operatic roles (and two arias for oratorio characters) by a series of composers, all of whom flourished during the eighteenth century. However, visiting conductor Jonathan Cohen also interleaved these vocal selections with instrumental works that made the case that this was a program of the transitions associated with the move from Baroque practices to the origins of what is now known as the Classical style.

Among the vocal selections, the most familiar were probably two of the arias for Orfeo from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice (Orpheus and Eurydice). In many respects “Che puro ciel! Che chiaro sol!” (how clear the sky; how bright the sun), from the second scene of the second act, was representative of the changes that were taking place. The instrumental accompaniment prepares the listener for “the songs of birds, the rippling of streams,/the whispering of the breeze” long before those words are sung. Last night this innovative use of music as language was further emphasized with the instrumental “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” before Davies launched into the best-known aria from the opera, “Che farò senza Euridice?” (what shall I do without Euridice).

In many ways the preceding vocal selections served to prepare the listener for the full impact of these Orfeo excerpts. Curiously enough, these included an aria from a later Gluck opera (Telemaco, based on the Odyssey), as well as operas by Johann Adolph Hasse (Didone Abbandonata, the aria capturing  Aeneas’ mixed emotions at the prospect of leaving Dido) and Thomas Arne (Prince Edward’s vengeance aria from Alfred), along with two oratorios by George Frideric Handel (Saul and Theodora). This entailed a generous breadth of emotional dispositions, all of which were delivered with expressive clarity through Davies’ vocal technique. One might almost say that these transitional composers were the real heroes of the evening with Davies making the case for their heroism.

Handel was also featured in the instrumental side of the program with his HWV 315 concerto grosso in F major, the third from his Opus 3 collection. The other instrumental selections were by composers not given vocal representation. In the first half of the program, the composer was Jan Dismas Zelenka with his ZWV 189, a sinfonia concertante in A minor with solo parts for violin, oboe, bassoon, and cello. The second half of the program featured the Wq. 182/6 E major symphony by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

Cohen gave spirited accounts of all of these instrumental selections. He had no trouble establishing an effective working chemistry with the PBO musicians. His decision to have first and second violins facing each other was particularly useful in sorting out the busy activities encountered in the Zelenka composition. The only sign of weakness arose in his efforts to sort out the birds, streams, and breeze in the Gluck aria; but things began to fall into place once Orfeo showed up to explain it all. Taken as a whole the evening was a memorably impressive display of both virtuoso and ensemble talents, all harnessed to provide an informative account of this major period in music history.

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