Third Coast Baroque parties like it’s 1685

Sat Nov 11, 2017 at 12:36 pm

By Michael Cameron

Ruben Dubrovsky led Third Coast Baroque Friday night at xxx. Photo: Werner Kmetitsch
Ruben Dubrovsky led Third Coast Baroque Friday night at St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church. Photo: Werner Kmetitsch

There was something magical in the air in 1685. This was the year that spawned three of the most beloved composers of the high Baroque, and before classicism broke out in the middle of the 18th century, the trio churned out a stream of masterpieces that defined the era for modern audiences and challenged later composers to meet their high standards of craftsmanship, melodic invention, and dramatic ingenuity.

“Class of ’85” was the label affixed to Third Coast Baroque’s concert at St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church. The ensemble’s inaugural season under artistic director Rubén Dubrovsky was an unqualified success, making a statement with thematic programs that often unearthed the period’s seldom acknowledged international roots.

The group opened their second season Friday with more familiar fare, but Dubrovsky’s trademark breezy commentary returned, providing a relaxed presentation of scrupulously prepared music.

The program featured a single substantial vocal work by each of the three masters, and the conductor used his ten singers to accentuate the differing approaches of each to the medium of massed voices.

Baroque motets tend toward the sober and reflective, but Bach’s Singet dem Herrn ein neues lied (Sing unto the Lord a new song) opens with exuberant exhortations for worshippers to raise their voices in song, an admonition that Dubrovsky’s splendid forces took to with unbridled fervor. He presented Bach’s vivid examples of word painting with animated precision on the melismas over the word reigen (“dance”) and a percussive insistence on pauken (“drums”).

Bach was not the most idiomatic composer for the human voice, but there was nary a hint of strain in the final mighty four-voice fugal treatment of “Hallelujah!” The surprisingly dryish acoustic of the church wasn’t the best match for slower movements in the other works, but here the clarity was a godsend, presenting Bach’s glorious counterpoint in high relief.

Handel’s operas and oratorios are justly celebrated, but his lesser known anthems provide a window into his singular choral writing in a more concentrated form. Based on Psalm 42, As pants the hart unfolds with relative directness and transparency of texture. Dubrovsky balanced his singers precisely, supplementing Handel’s indications with personalized dynamic additions tailored to the needs of the text.

The anthem also showcased the capabilities of individual singers, most notably the dusky-voiced mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker in “Tears are my daily food.” Mezzo Quinn Middleman joined Smucker in the soulful “Why so full of grief,” while Paul Max Tipton was the rich-toned bass in the recitative “Now when I think thereupon.”

If Bach and Handel excelled in most genres of the day, modern audiences know Domenico Scarlatti chiefly for the hundreds of exquisite keyboard sonatas that have carved out a special place on the recital stage, even for pianists who otherwise have little use for the Baroque. Like most Italian composers from all eras, he also had a natural way with the human voice.

His Stabat mater shows these skills to good effect, even if his achievement is a notch or two below the high standards of Bach and Handel.

Written for ten individual singers, its dense polyphony could have easily overwhelmed the inherent lyricism of individual lines. Dubrovsky juggled the competing interests neatly, drawing out the more compelling voices as register and text suggested. There was a distinct favoring of high voices over interior ones, but this was most likely an artifact of the acoustic. Scarlatti’s aching suspensions in “Cujus animam gementam” (Her spirit groaning) were rendered with poignant, understated grief.

Each of the three vocal works were preceded by solo harpsichord pieces, all performed with stylish elegance by Mark Shuldiner. Bach’s Sarabande from Partita No. 1 in Bb, BWV 825 and Handel’s Sarabande and variations from his Suite No. 4 in D minor, HWV 437 showed competing views of the same Baroque dance form. Scarlatti’s Sonata in C Minor, K. 158 unfolded patiently, with tasteful rubato and delicate lyricism.

The superb continuo trio included Shuldiner, cellist Anna Steinhoff and bassist Jerry Fuller.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Vail Chapel at Northwestern University.

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