Saturday, April 21, 2018

Handel’s “Operatic” Vespers Psalm Setting

Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the California Bach Society concluded the San Francisco round of its 47th season with a program entitled Handel in Rome. The title refers to the trip that George Frideric Handel made to Italy during his early twenties, ostensibly to hone his skills in writing opera. He was about twenty years old when his first two operas, Almira (HWV 1) and Nero (HWV 2), were first produced by the Oper am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg, where he worked as both violinist and harpsichordist in the orchestra, in 1705.

While working in Hamburg, he met the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Gian Gastone de’ Medici, which led to an invitation to Florence. The Duke had a keen interest in opera and had ambitions of making Florence the musical capital of Italy. Handel set off for Italy in 1706.

However, he knew that his operatic skills needed honing and set his sights on Rome. Unfortunately, while Pope Clement XI was a patron of the arts, he imposed a ban on opera that extended over all of the Papal States. As a result, Handel’s major source of work in Rome involved composing sacred music; and last night’s program presented three settings of Vespers Psalms composed for the Carmelites.

The best known of these is the HWV 232 Dixit Dominus (the Lord said) setting of Psalm 110. Handel may have been miffed at having been deprived of continuing his work on operas; but many of us view HWV 232 as the perfect example of getting even, rather than getting mad. Psalm 110 plays a significant role in Vespers services and is selected for recitation every Sunday and during major holidays. Ironically, it is one of the most aggressive of the Psalms, basically celebrating the Israelite God triumphing over all enemies.

Handel quickly saw this text for what it was worth: a blood-and-guts expression of Divine fury at its most intense. In other words the Psalm provided the stuff from which the juiciest of opera librettos could be fashioned! He went “all in” to exercise all those skills that he had come to Italy to cultivate; and many would agree that the result was Handel’s first big success as a composer. His efforts even won him the favor of many of the city’s influential Cardinals.

Last night it was clear that Artistic Director Paul Flight had focused his energy of giving HWV 232 the “operatic” treatment it deserved. Ironically (for a composer interested in opera), the score has only two arias, meaning that close to the entirety of the motet is left to the chorus. Nevertheless, five soloists were involved, one of whom was Flight himself taking the countertenor aria “Virgam virtutis tuae” (the rod of thy power). However, the strength in the evening resided in the choral command of Handel’s polyphony and his setting of onomatopoeia when the text is at its most brutal. The results were, for the most part, as thrilling as any operatic mad scene.

The first half of the program was devoted to Handel’s shorter settings of two other Vespers Psalms: Psalm 127 (Nisi Dominus, HWV 238) and Psalm 113 (Laudate pueri Dominum, HWV 237). Both of these were weaker offerings. Much of the solo work was unsteady over the course of the entire evening, but those efforts were given far more extended display during these first two Psalm settings. There was also a problem of too many heads (including those of the soloists) buried in the score pages and not always aware of the overall musical context through either sight or sound. To some extent these shortcomings were balanced by the first-rate instrumentalists that Flight had assembled for this occasion: Rachel Hurwitz, Lisa Grodin, Noah Strick, Aaron Westman, Anna Washburn, and Shelby Yamin (violins), Marieke Furnee, Amy Haltom, and Addi Liu (violas), Amy Brodo (cello), Kristin Zoernig (bass), and Yuko Tanaka (organ and harpsichord). Nevertheless, this was a program of vocal music; and the vocal efforts were, at best, variable.

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