Last night in Herbst Theatre the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) & Chorale gave its first San Francisco performance in its 39th season. This will be Nicholas McGegan’s farewell season, marking 35 years of service as Waverley Fund Music Director, acknowledged by the entire season bearing the overall title Reflections. Last night certainly reflected upon McGegan’s impact on PBO programming.
Appropriately enough, the first half of the evening was devoted to the most significant composer in McGegan’s PBO repertoire, George Frederic Handel, represented by both vocal and instrumental selections. The program began with the HWV 74 “Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne” with a libretto by Ambrose Philips. This ode is often known by the first line of the text, “Eternal source of light divine.”
The celebratory nature of the ode was marked by the presence of two trumpets, beginning with a dialog between first trumpet (John Thiessen) and countertenor (Reginald Mobley). Solos and duets were performed by the usual complement of voice levels, joining Mobley with soprano Arwen Myers, contralto Avery Amereau, and bass-baritone Dashon Burton. As usual, however, much of the “action” could be found in the choral work, prepared by Bruce Lamott, which included a double chorus at the conclusion of the ode.
What can be said of this performance that has not already been said of McGegan’s past interpretations of Handel’s choral music? In spite of certain repetitive qualities in the text, the composition proceeded at a brisk pace that never left one feeling as if familiar passages had outstayed their welcome. The balances both within the chorus and between chorus and instruments were consistently impeccable; and, for the most part, the soloists fit comfortably into the familiar rhetorical contexts established by the ensemble work. (Mobley was a bit shaky at the very beginning but almost immediately found and established far more confident footing.)
The instrumental offering was the suite from HWV 8b, “Terpsichore,” music which Handel composed as a prologue for his HWV 8 opera Il pastor fido (the faithful shepherd). This consisted of a series of five short pieces, each in its own distinctive form, followed by an extended Chaconne as the conclusion. Taken as a whole this was the perfect way to showcase the diverse skills of the different instrumentalists in the ensemble, even with a bit of tambourine work by Alan Biggs to liven up one of the more spritely movements. Taken as a whole, the first half of the program once again affirmed McGegan’s talent for taking music from half a century in the past and endowing it with freshness entirely suitable for the present.
Composer Caroline Shaw (photograph by Kait Moreno, from Shaw’s Web site)
The second half of the program consisted entirely of the fourth work by Caroline Shaw to be composed on a PBO commission. “The Listeners” is an oratorio inspired by the Golden Record, a long-playing disc with two copies, each attached to a Voyager spacecraft. An earlier satellite had been launched with a plaque that identified its origin, but Voyager was a major effort to launch a vehicle that would go beyond the solar system. (Carl Sagan called it “the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean.’”) The content included both text and a wide variety of musical selections, including folk sources and composed works that ran the gamut from Johann Sebastian Bach to Chuck Berry. Timothy Ferris, who produced the Golden Record itself, participated in a discussion with Shaw and Lamott prior to the performance.
It would be fair to say that Shaw conceived “The Listeners” as a “response” to the “call” of the Golden Record. While selections from that source were included, they were supplemented with settings of texts by Walt Whitman, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Ysesnia Montilla, and Lucille Clifton. All solo vocal work was in the low register, so the soloists for the performance were Amereau and Burton. The composition also included the recording of a 1994 lecture Sagan had given at Cornell University.
All this looked very good on paper, but performance was another matter. Shaw was clearly sensitive to the semantic implications of the texts she had selected. Unfortunately, her basic technique fell short of doing justice to any of those texts on either semantic or rhetorical grounds. All too often the attentive listener would come away with the sense that these texts were nothing more than strings of syllables that needed to be hooked up to the proper notes. Any sense of phrasing that would develop those syllables into words and the words into phrases was lost in the busy-work assigned to both instruments and voices. Perhaps, while her time with Roomful of Teeth has sensitized Shaw’s awareness to the wide diversity of vocal sonorities, those experiences have offered little when it comes to addressing semantic and rhetorical needs.
As a result, Shaw’s high point of the evening came even before Lamott convened his pre-concert discussion. The members of the New Esterházy Quartet (NEQ), violinists Lisa Weiss and Kati Kyme, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen, performed one of her much earlier compositions, “Entr’acte.” This was my third listening encounter with this piece and the first that did not leave me entirely cold. The work amounts of a deconstruction of music from the string quartets of Joseph Haydn; and, since NEQ specializes in those quartets, it is reasonable to assume that they brought more appreciation of Haydn’s “nuts and bolts” to their performance than I had previously encountered.
However, they also contributed something even more critical to the execution, a sense of humor. Presumably, Shaw appreciated the many ways in which Haydn could inject humor into his compositions. Thus, the very act of deconstruction could have been a matter of playing a trick on a master trickster. That being the case, since NEQ has established a solid grasp of Haydn’s many tricks, they could bring that grasp to their execution of Shaw’s score. The result evoked a series of subtle grins and the occasional belly-laugh. Shaw clearly knows a thing or two about rhetoric, would that a bit of that background knowledge had surfaced in “The Listeners.”