On January 1st at Sanders Theatre, Boston Baroque rang in the New Year with music by Bach and Handel, two great stars of that era. To imagine this music, dating back nearly three centuries, one need only experience Boston Baroque. Performing now for over thirty years, BB is well practiced at the art of recreating the splendor and affect of that time.
Martin Pearlman, BB’s founder and music director, led his apt period-instrument ensemble in a program of familiar favorites featuring rising stars Christina Day Martinson, violinist, and Kristen Watson, soprano. All lit up the house-or sky, by way of analogy. Yes! It was more like looking at a sky, seen these days only in remoter places of the world where city lights no longer reach, where conceivable and inconceivable mazes of light come into view. Figures shine, pulsations shift, bright alternates with dim, a fine array of color is ablaze. Through the playing of young and gifted Canadian Martinson and accomplished Boston Baroque the countless notes of the Bach Violin Concerto in E Major found a kind of extraterrestrial life.
Often described as discourse, Bach’s compositions point toward a logical continuity consisting of melodic motives, sequences (rising or falling patterns), and cadences. Also characteristic of Baroque music is the propensity of a stable, pronounced beat to give grounding to its rhythmic movement, further enabling listeners to grasp meaning.
But both logic and beat can easily contribute to world-weariness if those doing the recreating cannot succeed in lifting countless notes to higher, expressive levels. Martinson and Pearlman climbed to these higher altitudes. Larger and smaller accentuations in the timing generated newly observable constellations in the concerto. An unforced, totally natural rhythmic/dynamic elasticity from Martinson’s solo violin invoked amazement of the kind coming from beholding twinkling orbs. To watch her was to hear her was to be fully engaged as she was in this astonishing period performance.
Young and upcoming soprano star Kristen Watson from perhaps lesser spoiled skies over Kansas made it up there, too, with a sparkling interpretation of Handel’s Agrippina condotta a morire (“Agrippina led to her death”). Through a string of arias and recitatives, Roman Queen Agrippina expresses rage and grief, on learning that Emperor Nero has determined her, his mother, too dangerous to remain alive. What a way-the thought pops up-to celebrate the New Year, even if Handel’s setting injects softer touches as well as doubts about the spiky woman who may have gone too far with her enemies. In his introductory remark, Pearlman explained how he arrived at programming this dramatic Italian cantata, “it’s a great piece, maybe we can get away with it.”
Watson dexterously produced orbiting comets in the form of streaming notes flashing by one after another (melismas, as they are technically termed). How could she sing at such velocity without batting an eye or creating an infraction? More marvels-a beautiful, luminous “Come, o Dio, bramo la morte” (How, O God, shall I desire death) and a deeply affecting “Se infelice al mondo vissi” (As unfortunate I lived in the world) realized in part by star-like fluctuations on the vowel “o.”
Contrastingly, rage erupted and subsided as suggested from an assortment of clues Watson managed to uncover from the cantata’s picturesque score. The drama intensified. A brush with the inevitable ends the cantata not with a song-like aria but a brief, a very brief, reconciling talk-like recitative. Both Watson and BB recreated this centuries old work in thoroughly high Baroque style.
Visible as well as audible evidence of festive celebration shone abundantly in other ways. Outlining the flow of the music through his unambiguous motions, director Martin Pearlman revealed extraordinary preparation and passion for the music he chose to program. Easily scanning the chamber-sized Boston Baroque on Sanders stage, one witnessed each musician, unusual instrument in hand, performing with obvious dedication, their artistry shining.
The three groups of string trios that make up Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major stood in a semicircle with Pearlman at the harpsichord. This lit up ears and eyes with blindingly bright exchanges group to group, left to right and right to left. One of few exceptions occurred in the third movement where the extremely fast tempo brought on a bit of exhaustion (and several minor slips from the BB). Here is where Chicken Little may have wanted to cry, “The sky is falling.”
Add a smaller version of the timpani, longer-than-usual trumpets, and two warm reed instruments to Baroque bowed strings and a harpsichord for a performance of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, and an experience of Baroque splendor arose. Known more popularly as “Air for the G String,” the slow second movement became “one of the brightest stars in the firmament.” I have never heard a more beautifully, sensitively articulated re-creation than this.
A less serious Concerto Grosso in G Major, Op. 6, No. 1 by Handel sustained the festive spirits of the Baroque era. Generally, I would have liked a more audible harpsichord. Otherwise, what a perfect way to bring in the New Year!