Mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter (photograph by Ewa-Marie Rundquist, from the PBO event page)
The latest program to be presented by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO), given its San Francisco performance last night in Herbst Theatre, was structured around a visit by mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter. Joined by countertenor Daniel Moody and with Waverley Fund Music Director Nicholas McGegan on the podium, von Otter performed a selection of oratorio and opera music by George Frideric Handel during the first half of the program, while shifting attention to the more recent past for music by Arvo Pärt and Caroline Shaw. These were framed by instrumental selections of music by Handel, Pärt, and Henry Purcell.
The focus of von Otter’s Handel selections was the HWV 67 oratorio Solomon. She began with the Queen of Sheba’s concluding aria (the final aria of the entire oratorio), “Will the sun forget to streak.” Rolling back to the second scene of the first act, she took the role of Solomon’s Queen, joined by Moody as Solomon, to sing the “marital bliss” duet “Welcome as the dawn of day” (with the bliss enhanced by minimal but highly effective theatrics). For her operatic selection she sang Juno’s vengeance aria, “Iris, hence away,” from the HWV 58 Semele. The Handel set also had Moody sing two of Arsace’s arias from the HWV 27 Partenope, “Ch’io parta? sì, crudele, parto, mà senza cor” (I should leave? Yes, cruel one, I will leave. But without a heart.) and “Furibondo spira il vento” (the wind blows furiously). Moody began the entire vocal set, preceded by McGegan leading PBO in the Partenope overture. He concluded the Handel set with a performance of HWV 313, the second (in B-flat major) of the six concerti grossi published by Handel as his Opus 3.
Moody also joined von Otter for her only Pärt selection, the duet “Es sang vor langen jahren” (long years ago). The two vocal lines were accompanied by only two instrumental parts taken by Lisa Weiss on violin and Katherine Kyme on viola. Moody also sang the instrumental version of Pärt’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer (in German), originally composed for boy’s voice and piano and dedicated to Pope Benedict XVI. These selections were preceded by the string orchestra performance of “Summa,” originally composed as an a cappella setting of the Credo portion of the Mass. Each of these selections featured Pärt’s characteristic rhetoric of stillness, which often assumes greater impact in a space with more reverberation. Nevertheless, McGegan’s performances with historical instruments provided a new path to that rhetoric, which turned out to be equally successful.
The Shaw selections, on the other hand, were composed with both von Otter and PBO in mind. “Red, Red Rose” and “The Edge” were written as the first two parts of a three-song cycle. (The remaining song has been scheduled for a premiere performance at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in New York early next week on March 12.) These PBO concerts are presenting the world premiere of “The Edge” and the Bay Area premiere of “Red, Red Rose” (first performed in Los Angeles in 2016).
While one could appreciate the expressiveness that von Otter brought to these songs, they were decidedly the weakest portion of the program. Much of Shaw’s musical rhetoric seems to be based on a variety of ingenious approaches to the deconstruction and reconstruction of both concert repertoire and folk sources. For the most part, however, the results emerge as structure with little sense of function. When the need for function involves setting text, this means that text tends to be reduced to no more than a string of syllables to be woven into the structure. Von Otter did a praiseworthy job in doing her best to evoke the spirit of Robert Burns in “Red, Red Rose;” but any impact of the poem itself rested almost entirely on von Otter’s interpretation, rather than Shaw’s score.
Fortunately, the spirit of music revived when von Otter was joined by Moody for one last selection taken as an encore. This was the duet “My dearest, my fairest” from Henry Purcell’s Z. 585 incidental music for Richard Norton’s Pausanias, the Betrayer of His Country. McGegan then concluded the program with a suite of instrumental selections for Purcell’s Z. 629 “semi-opera” The Fairy-Queen.
Taken as a whole, however, this was very much von Otter’s show. Even in a concert setting, her impressive vocal skills were always supplemented by a keen sense of how much body language to engage in order for the semantics behind the music to register properly. Through her chemistry with both Moody and McGegan, it was also clear that she is a first-rate “team player.”
According to my records, von Otter’s last appearance in San Francisco took place when she gave a San Francisco Performances recital in January of 2015; let us hope that we shall not have to wait another four years before her next visit.