Saturday, June 18, 2016

Berkeley Early Music Festival and Festival Fringe

Earlier this month the San Francisco Early Music Society sponsored the weeklong Berkeley Festival and Exhibition of early music, together with the BFX Fringe. It was wonderful to spend a week in which it was possible to attend a concert every day around lunchtime, as an afternoon break, or after work (often I could choose from multiple events happening simultaneously). That most of the concert venues were within a few blocks of one another and near the delicious food and drink of the Musical Offering Cafe made me feel that I'd been transported for a week to Paris. We'll have to wait until 2018 for the Festival's return to Berkeley; in 2017 it's the turn of the Boston Early Music Festival.

What follows are some notes from this year's Festival and Fringe.

The hardest-working woman in early music: Danielle Sampson

Danielle Sampson

Mezzo-soprano Danielle Sampson appeared by my count in four Fringe concerts, each with a different group and an entirely different, carefully-thought-out program, all performed ravishingly:
  • Sunday June 5: With the superb support of Liaison Baroque Ensemble and mezzo-soprano Melinda Becker, Sampson performed "The Nature of Love," a program featuring vocal and instrumental music by Barbara Strozzi, Antonio Vivaldi and Claudio Monteverdi—a wonderful start to the week of Festival and Fringe concerts.
  • Tuesday June 7: As Ruggiero, the enchanted knight, Sampson sang highlights from Handel's Alcina with members of Black Box Baroque and the Albany Consort from their recent production (alas, I missed the highlights concert).
  • Wednesday June 8: With Nash Baroque, Sampson performed "Music of Arcadia: Pastoral and Courtly Diversions of 18th-Century France," featuring vocal and instrumental music by Monteclair, François Couperin,  Boismortier, and others, none of which I had heard before.
  • Thursday June 9: As Jarring Sounds (with her accompanist Adam Cockerham on theorbo), Sampson sang a beautifully conceived program in which Henry Purcell's elegies for the composers Matthew Locke, John Playford and Thomas Farmer were followed by songs written by those composers. The concert closed with a gorgeous newly composed elegy for Purcell by Kyle Hovatter, "on a flat stone over his grave"—a piece commissioned by Jarring Sounds for this program (!)—and some of Purcell's songs.
The name of Jarring Sounds is taken from John Dowland's "In darkness let me dwell," though "seventeenth-century songs about death" are only a part of their wide-ranging repertory. (For this program they also performed some more lighthearted and amorous songs such as Locke's "The delights of the bottle" and Purcell's "When first Amintas sued for a kiss," with some nicely judged characterization by Sampson.) And the sounds that they produce are anything but "hellish jarring sounds"; Sampson has a beautifully clear, pure voice:

More performances are available on the websites linked above. I was impressed by her Ruggiero when I saw the Black Box Baroque production of Alcina in April, and now I'm a fan; I'll be following this artist and her musical collaborators with great interest.

Most charming new discovery: Haydn's English Love Songs as performed by Jennifer Paulino

Jennifer Paulino

This was a week of discovery: I had never heard Haydn's English songs before attending this concert (Wednesday June 8). But these charming pieces—settings of poems by Anne Hunter, who may have been Haydn's lover—were most winningly performed by Jennifer Paulino (accompanied on fortepiano by Elaine Thornburgh). To close the concert, Paulino gave a powerful and moving rendition of Haydn's 20-minute-long dramatic scene "Arianna a Naxos." Paulino has performed with some of our favorite early music groups, such as Magnificat, and it was a pleasure to hear her rich soprano in this repertory.

On Friday Paulino, together with mezzo-soprano Celeste Winant, David Morris on baroque cello, and Yuko Tanaka on harpsichord, performed a program of duets by Handel, Vivaldi, and Alessandro Scarlatti on the theme of love. Not only was this program of glorious music beautifully sung and played, it had the most fun program notes of the Festival.

From a few years ago, here is Paulino performing with the ensemble Les Grâces in rehearsal:

You can find additional audio clips on Paulino's website.

Peak experience, instrumental: Rachel Podger with Elizabeth Blumenstock, Hanneke van Proosdij and Voices of Music, co-directed by van Proosdij and David Tayler, Thursday, June 9

Rachel Podger and Elizabeth Blumenstock

Podger is an internationally-renowned violinist, while Blumenstock (violin) and van Proosdij (recorders, organ) are beloved figures in the Bay Area early music community. Together they performed a program of virtuosic pieces by Bach and Vivaldi. The concert included Bach's  Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 (Andrew Levy duetted with van Proosdij on "echo flute") and his Concerto for two violins in D minor (Blumenstock was Podger's able partner). The concert also included some pieces by Vivaldi: a concerto from La Stravaganza as a showpiece for Podger and an electrifying concerto for sopranino recorder in C major, which van Proosdij played spectacularly.

But these performers also excelled at slower and more emotionally expressive pieces. Here's a small taste: the Sonata in G major from Bach's cantata Himmelskönig, sie wilkommen:

For more from Voices of Music, visit their YouTube channel.

Peak experience, choral: Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier, artistic director, with Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players and Concerto Palatino

Vox Luminis

Another discovery of this festival for me was Vox Luminis, a Belgian vocal ensemble, who performed the closing program on Sunday, June 12. Early that morning the latest mass shooting with a legally-obtained assault rifle had taken place in Orlando, and so the somber, mournful music by Thomas Morley and Henry Purcell for the funeral of Queen Mary on 5 March 1695 felt entirely fitting. When the first notes of "Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let me crying come unto thee" permeated the stillness of the First Congregational Church, it was transporting.

I could only wish that Vox Luminis had also performed Purcell's great elegy on the death of Queen Mary, "O dive custos." (That link takes you to a portion of the full music for the death of Queen Mary, from a Vox Luminis program last year; I definitely recommend listening to the entire concert when you have the chance.)

In the second half of the closing Festival concert Vox Luminis performed the incredibly difficult "Dixit Dominus" by Handel, which featured split-second antiphonal call-and-response between two seven-voice choirs. Their precision in that music was amazing, but I will remember even longer the moving funeral music.

It seemed like a good idea, but...

Among so many fantastic experiences, there were a couple of concerts that did not quite live up to my expectations. One lunchtime Fringe concert by a local instrumental group that shall remain nameless was either drastically underrehearsed or simply beyond their capabilities; whichever was the case, the performance—filled with flubbed notes and fudged runs—was a disappointment.

And the Festival's opening concert by the sackbut consort ¡Sacabuche! on Sunday June 5 was held in the new Berkeley Art Museum's lobby amphitheater. While the rich sonorities of the trombone-like sackbuts would sound great anywhere, the timbres of the high strings and of countertenor Steven Rickards were not flattered by the acoustic. And the amphitheater seating was incredibly uncomfortable: the plank seating offered no back support and the low-rise dimensions were so awkward there wasn't room either to stretch out your legs or cross them. Half an hour into the concert my body was aching and it was becoming increasingly difficult to focus on the music. To top it off, the location right at the entrance of the museum is noisy. The space is striking, but is not really suitable for extended listening. I hope I have a chance to hear this ensemble again under less distracting conditions.

I don't want to end my reflections on this wonderful festival on a negative note, though. So here is Danielle Sampson once again, performing Monteverdi's "Lamento della ninfa,"  with Jason McStoots and Charley Blandy (tenors), Douglas Williams (bass), Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette (theorbos), and Laura Jeppesen (gamba):

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