Monday, October 18, 2010

Harpsichord Bachanalia at the Philharmonia Baroque

The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, a Bay Area early music ensemble playing period instruments, is enjoying its 30th season this year, 25 of them with the same British music director, Nicholas McGegan (not pictured).

This last weekend (and again this Tuesday evening the 19th in Atherton/Menlo Park), the ensemble is being led in an all Johann Sebastian Bach concert by a Danish harpsichord star, Lars Ulrik Mortensen (above), who conducted from his instrument in a performance that was bizarrely entertaining. Since his hands are busy much of the time at the harpsichord, Mortensen conducts the rest of the small ensemble with every other part of his body that he can. He swoons, makes faces, bends and sways, and makes expressive movements with his arms and hands when they are unoccupied. I half expected him to throw off his shoes at some point so he could use his legs, feet and twinkling toes to help guide his fellow players. At Friday's performance in Civic Center's Herbst Theatre, it was difficult not to giggle at some of the more outlandish gestures, and in fact a woman sitting behind me lost it at one point and did just that.

Whether on account of all this commotion or for some other reason, the Bach was full of life in music that can be deadly dull when performed too correctly or mechanically. The program included two harpsichord concertos (#1 and #3), the Orchestral Suite #1, and the solo soprano Wedding Cantata with the Swedish soprano Maria Keohane (above and below).

Keohane's concert gown was a bit unfortunate, reminding me of a recent bridesmaid's dress episode on "Project Runway," but her beautiful voice and spirit were infectious. In particular, the duets between her and Gonzalo Ruiz playing the oboe were magnificent.

The harpsichord concertos were filled with eccentric tempos and casual mastery that kept being punctuated by Mortensen's Muppet-like gestures toward the ensemble. It was fun.

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