Today was the second concert in the Baroque Band's inaugural season, and while the first was a rather underwhelming experience for me, this concert was quite superb. Titled, Handel's in a Rage, the concert featured works by Handel, mostly from his Italianate period. It featured the overtures to his Xerxes and Semele operas, along with two Italian cantatas, Tu fedel? Tu constante? and Armida abbandonata, two very dramatic portraits of women dealing with love lost. Along with soprano Jennifer Ellis Kampani, the Baroque Band pulled off a highly successful concert, mainly due to the commitment of the players, but more importantly, the genius of the program. After all, the Baroque period has literally thousands of pieces to choose from, so success must come from the intelligent selection and arrangement of those pieces.
It started with the overture to Xerxes, a rather stately and dramatic overture that served as the appetizer to the stormy cantata Tu fedel? Tu constante? which followed immediately after the conclusion of the overture. The works have nothing to do with each other, but in the mind of the ensemble's director Garry Clarke, the overture was perfect music to introduce the cantata, being drafted as its overture. It worked superbly. The cantata's scenario is a standard piece from the Baroque, expressing some maid's anger and sorrow over her lover's inconstancy. Handel's music is a different story. It is filled with musical gestures that engage the listener in the well-trodden story. Jennifer Ellis Kampani sang the piece with assurance, although her voice took some getting used to for my taste. It seemed brittle and her vibrato was rather quick, many oscillations per second if that makes sense. But in certain recitativos and passages in the arias, her voice was well-matched to the music. After the dynamic duo of overture and cantata, they concluded the half with one of Handel's famous concerti grossi, Op.6. I found it to be a rather abrupt change in style. Although the form may be Italian, Handel wrote it with English audiences in mind and doesn't betray a dramatic impetus, unlike the other pieces so far. But, the approach is redeemed in the second half.
The same formula is used, this time with the overture to Semele. After its conclusion, the ensemble takes its bow. Armida begins after the applause and proceeds between great resignation and fury on the part of the sorceress. The music matches the word's mood swings perfectly, and it is simply a much more entertaining piece of music than the previous cantata. It ends quietly with Armida asking the God of Love to destroy not her fleeing lover, but her love for him. The masterstroke for me was the immediate segue into Handel's Concerto Grosso No.7, which begins with a Largo of stately grace. To make it suit what preceded it, each phrase was played quite apart from the others, creating a musical meditation on the witch's noble grief. I was just dumbstruck by the move's seamlessness. If you knew me, small details like that are what make me tick, and to have it in the realm of programming is an even more pleasurable surprise. The small audience gave the Baroque Band and Jennifer Ellis their well-deserved ovation.
I liked this concert so much better than the first. I think lots of things conspired to make this one a great one. First, I wanted music, so I was ready. Sometimes, you just have to have the desire not just the time. Secondly, I got there with enough time to sit and enjoy the stunning beauty of the Grainger Ballroom in the CSO's Symphony Center. It is such a beautiful space, made even moreso with its magical Christmas garb. That combined with the lush string sound created by the small ensemble, especially in the concerti grossi made for pure delight. I also think Handel had something to do with it. It was nice to hear Handel that isn't Messiah, especially in December. Let's not forget that he spent a very long time in Italy perfecting his skills in Italianate composition, including Italian opera and Italian oratorio. So early works, but matched together in a sensible and varied program that not only makes sense on paper, but sonically as well. Bravo to the Baroque Band.