Every now and then something goes awry. For the Intelligencer, the scheduled reviewer for the Boston Baroque concert yesterday (January 1) thought “Saturday night” rather than “New Year’s Day” and arrived at a darkened Sanders Theatre at 7:40 p.m. Some concerts are just too worthy, for any number of reasons, for a notice to be scrapped, so I am tackling this one, despite having one former review called “atrocious” by a commentator who added that I “must have flunked Music 101.” Further, I come with baggage: I served on the board of Banchetto Musicale (as it was then called) in the early 1980s and proposed back then that it perform on First Night, which must be one of the few times that the board overruled the music director, Martin Pearlman, and concurred. As many Bostonians know, Boston Baroque soon added the popular First Day concert and spun off both, proving very effective promotion over the years.
The repertory at these concerts tends to be more cautious than the other three concerts of a regular Boston Baroque season (a fourth, Handel’s Messiah, being the one constant), and this was no exception. But Pearlman decided on a somewhat last-minute felicitous change to the program (printed on an insert, as the book for both this concert and the traditional early December performances of the Messiah at Jordan Hall had already been printed). Bass-baritone Kevin Deas, whose performance in the famous oratorio stunned everyone, was invited to sing a few selections and he certainly added a new dimension to the regular fare—also giving the Boston Baroque’s fine instrumentalists a chance to show different interpretive styles: vibrato and smooth bowing in works of a later era.
The Arcangelo Corelli Concerto Grosso in g minor (“Christmas Concerto”) began the program, followed by the J.S. Bach Concerto for Oboe, Violin and Orchestra, BWV 1060, reconstructed from the suite for two harpsichords, with fine performances from Marc Schachman and concertmaster Christina Day Martinson.
Pearlman eliminated the scheduled Purcell Suite for Strings to make time for Deas’s contributions: the amusing Handel ode “O Ruddier than the Cherry” from Acis and Galatea; a spiritual, Didn’t my lord Deliver Daniel, with the orchestra basically providing the bass line; and — ending the first half of the program on a profoundly moving note — Ole Man River. The gratitude of the audience was palpable.
Actually, because Baroque instruments are a half step lower than modern instruments, Deas said after the concert that Pearlman told him that Ol’ Man River would end up in the key of B, rather than C. Deas responded that it was “fine, as long as it didn’t go higher.” He added that being asked by Pearlman, “What would you like to sing?’ was a dream call from a conductor.
Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso No. 12 in d minor, a set of variations — twenty-four of them — on La follia, by Corelli, had far too little variation for these ears. Pearlman’s conducting skills stressed differences, minor as they seemed, by bringing out a secondary line, which helped. And one in particular (third from last?) had some refreshing harmonics. Though Handel’s Water Music is a warhorse, Pearlman nevertheless excelled in delivering a wonderful variety of instrumental colors.
There’s not a musician in this band that was not outstanding, shown to such good effect when they are highlighted in smaller groupings. Marc Schachman’s solo oboe in Water Music was commendable — though the superb oboe playing of Gonzalo Ruiz should be singled out. One of the most ravishing moments of the evening was a section of the minuet in Water Music when Pearlman softened the first violins and cellos to focus on the sonority of the violas, second violins, and bassoon in unison. It was ethereal.