Sunday, March 06, 2016

Alexander's Feast with ABS

The early music, original instruments ensemble of the American Bach Soloists performed Handel's 1736 oratorio Alexander's Feast last week in Berkeley, Davis, Belvedere, and at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco, which is where I caught the splendid performance on a Sunday afternoon. The English text is from a long poem by John Dryden about the power of music during a drunken feast after Alexander has conquered the Persians, and Handel responded with one hit tune after another. (Click here for an entertaining discussion about 17th century poetry and Handel between Jeff McMillan and Patrick Vaz at the ABS blog.)

Handel's oratorios were originally performed with instrumental works inserted, and music director Jeffrey Thomas above continued the tradition, with the Concerto Grosso in C Major starting the second half of the concert after intermission. The Concerto in B-Flat Major for Harp was played early in the oratorio, after the tenor sang, "Timotheus plac'd on high,/Amid the tuneful quire/With flying fingers touched the lyre:/The trembling notes ascend the sky/And heavenly joys inspire."

If you have ever listened to classical radio stations which feature Baroque music, you have heard this Harp concerto innumerable times. Sunday was the first time I've heard the piece live, and it was given a sparkling performance by soloist Maria Christina Cleary above. After her starring stint, Cleary continued playing with the orchestral ensemble for the entirety of the oratorio, creating a complementary continuo with Corey Jameson on the harpsichord

Soloist Aaron Sheehan above had a sweet, unforced tenor and perfect diction while baritone William Sharp was a bit gruff sounding, which worked very well for his "Drinking is the Soldier's Pleasure" aria.

Anna Gorbachyova in her debut possessed a strong, beautiful soprano but she didn't seem to quite have it under control, and it was impossible to understand a syllable of her accented English.

The real stars of the performance, with the lion's share of music, was the 20-person American Bach Choir who were so forceful at times that they sounded like a 60-person ensemble. I have had their "None but the Brave deserves the Fair" earworming through my brain for the rest of the week.

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