Sunday, December 3, 2017

Virtuoso Concertos from Voices of Music

Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Voices of Music began its 2017–2018 concert series in San Francisco with its annual Holiday Concert. The title of this season’s program was Virtuoso Concertos of Bach, Biber, Handel & Vivaldi. Strictly speaking, the offering by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber was not a concerto; and the title overlooked the inclusion of a recorder concerto in D minor by Domenico Natale Sarro, which was receiving its first round of performances in the Bay Area. In addition, the entire evening was framed by two pieces that were not concertos, an instrumental arrangement of the Sarabande movement from George Frideric Handel’s HWV 437 keyboard suite in D minor at the beginning and Francesco Geminiani’s instrumental transcription of the last of Arcangelo Corelli’s twelve Opus 5 sonatas, a single movement set of variations on the “Folia” theme, to conclude the program.

This made for an evening of highly engaging selections, given a compelling account by a rich ensemble of highly engaged musicians. Elizabeth Blumenstock and Kati Kyme played viola in Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1051 (“Brandenburg”) concerto in B-flat major (the sixth of the set), and played violin for the rest of the selections. The other violinists were Lisa Grodin and Carla Moore, and Maria Caswell was the only other violist. Elisabeth Reed and William Skeen took the gamba parts in BWV 1051, while Skeen played cello for the rest of evening, including joining Tanya Tomkins in Antonio Vivaldi’s RV 409 concerto in E minor for two cellos. Continuo was provided by Farley Pearce on violone and David Tayler (co-director of Voices of Music) on archlute. Hanneke van Proosdij (the other Voices of Music co-director) took the recorder solo in the Sarro concerto and joined Moore for the solo work in Handel’s HWV 314, the third of Handel’s Opus 3 set of six concerti grossi. She played harpsichord for the remainder of the evening, along with Katherine Heater on organ (shifting to harpsichord during Proosdij’s recorder performances).

While the emphasis may have been on concertos, the high point of the program came with the performance of “Battalia,” Biber’s musical depiction of a battle. For those who heard this piece performed last month by the New Century Chamber Orchestra, this was a welcome opportunity to revisit this very adventurous piece of program music, performed this time on period instruments. As was observed in the account of last month’s performance, Biber managed to anticipate the music of Charles Ives at its most outrageous over 200 years before Ives was born. This takes place in the movement entitled “Die liederliche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor,” which I had previously translated as “the songs of a company of knights with many different attitudes.” Each instrument has a solo part depicting one of those knights, and each knight has his own favorite song. The instruments enter one-by-one, each knight singing his own song and trying to drown out the others. Ives could not have written this movement any better than Biber did:

Excerpt from Biber anticipating Ives (from Wikimedia Commons, transcribed into Sibelius by Philip Legge, available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license)

The ensemble also decided to give a “semi-staged” presentation of the battle itself. This consisted primarily of Tomkins and Skeen holding their instruments like muskets, aiming at each other and then enduring the kickback of the gun each time a shot was fired. Their aim was clearly pretty bad, since, by the end of the movement, Proosdij was slumped over her keyboard.

The rest of the evening was far less outrageous, but it was unfailingly engaging from beginning to end. It involved just the right mix of the very familiar (such as the Bach selection), the somewhat familiar (such as the Folia theme), and the previously unencountered concerto by Sarro. Once again the Voices of Music season is off to a good start, and there remains much to anticipate in the two concerts that remain to be presented.

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