Thursday, May 03, 2018

Beethoven Unleashed with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

Though not a fan of Beethoven or musical settings of the Roman Catholic Mass in general, I was completely enthralled and moved by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra's performance of Beethoven's 1807 Mass in C major last Saturday at the Herbst Theatre.

Part of the joy were the four soloists, from left to right above, soprano Chantal Santon-Jefferyl, contralto Avery Amereau, tenor Thomas Cooley, and bass Hadleigh Adams.

The Philharmonia Chorale under Bruce Lamott is always the most reliably excellent component of any PBO concert, but this Mass seemed to fit the group perfectly in their wheelhouse, where you could hear every musical strand playing off of each other, negotiating Beethoven's sometimes awkward vocal writing smoothly and beautifully.

It was nice to listen to baritone Hadleigh Adams singing Classical music rather than the modernist pieces I've been hearing him in for the last couple of years. His voice isn't huge, but it's beautiful and unforced and is supremely musical. The same can be said for tenor Thomas Cooley who has been enjoyable every time I've heard him. Next to these two, soprano Chantal Santon-Jeffery (not pictured) sounded like she was trying too hard even though she has a pretty voice. The shocker of the evening was the contralto Avery Amereau who looked like a blonde soubrette who should be singing high soprano parts like Zerbinetta or the Queen of the Night, and then she opened her mouth and a rich, creamy, velvety contralto voice streamed out, and you could feel an entire audience fall instantly in love. My gosh, it was like a young Ewa Podles/Kathleen Ferrier/Maureen Forrester mashup. I can't wait to hear her again, in anything.

After intermission, they played a piece by Luigi Cherubini, a composer I only know from Berlioz's Memoires, where he makes malicious fun of the older composer and his pompousness. Chant sure la mort de Josph Haydn has a hilarious backstory where Cherubini read that Haydn had died in London so he wrote a memorial piece for him, but it turned out to be fake news and Haydn didn't die until four years later, when the piece was premiered. (Pictured is virtuoso violinist Toma Iliev.)

Another shock was how strange and beautiful the music turned out to be. The first half of the 15-minute piece is an experimental sounding dirge that passes off from one part of the small orchestra to another. The second half starts with an a capella trio between a soprano and two tenors (Chantal Santon-Jeffery, David Kurtenbach and Thomas Cooley) that was so exquisite that again you could feel the entire audience lifted out of their seats by the sheer beauty of the sound and the pleasure the performers were having while singing it. It made you want to listen to everything Cherubini for the first time.

The finale was Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, which is a lunatic piece he wrote to wow everyone in Vienna after a four-hour concert of all-new music by HIM. It starts out as an insanely improvisatory sounding solo piece for the piano, with bizarre precursors of minimalism, then it turns into a piano concerto with orchestra, and for the last seven minutes it turns into a chorus and soloist piece that oddly sounds like a 9th Symphony Ode to Joy warmup. (Pictured above is PBO Music Director Nicholas McGegan and violinist Noah Strick.)

Eric Zivian was the soloist on the fortepiano. A pair of ladies from Marin County were sitting behind me close to the stage, and though they were choristers with the Marin County Symphony, they had never been to a Philharmonia Baroque concert or heard any of the repertory, so I gave them a Cliffs Note version in the most sardonic way imaginable which they appreciated. As it turned out, we were all musically thrilled together as the concert went on, but I warned them that the piano soloist in my experience tended to be a pounder and sort of ridiculous in his mannerisms, and we had a hard time not laughing during the performance.

It did not really matter because the rest of the soloists, the chorus and the orchestra were having such a good time in the music that it translated into a festive experience.

An LGBTQ reception was scheduled afterwards, and I told the Marin County ladies about the event and said, "Please come, but you have to pretend you're lesbians." In a wonderful gesture, the president of the PBO Board announced at intermission from the stage that there was an LGBT event downstairs after the concert, but that everyone was invited. It turned into a perfectly lovely party.

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