Musicians of the Old Post Road’s “Winter’s Cheer” concert at Emmanuel Church on Saturday afternoon, December 17, vividly explored the wintry mix of moods and events associated with this season. Yet programmatic nuances aside, the main story was MOPR’s devotion to the unexplored corners of music history and their advocacy through insightful, engaged performance.
MOPR’s unique contribution perhaps is best illustrated by Il Decembre, a suite by Gregor Joseph Werner (1693-1766), an older (and apparently not well liked) colleague of Haydn at the Esterházy court. Werner’s instrumental suite features upbeat, clever depictions of the month that are otherwise merely charming. It was up to Jesse Irons’s assured, sunny violin to illuminate the “Inverno” movement, and the ensemble’s synergy brought “Il Sole in Capricorno” to a humorously abrupt close. The final “Il Fine dell’Anno” movement rang in a boisterous new year, courtesy of MOPR’s shifting dynamics. Moments like these are not superimposed onto the music; they’re waiting to be developed (maybe interpreted), yet it’s difficult to imagine many musicians taking the time to explore a composer such as Werner, while integrating their own personality.
The instrumental Noëls of Michel-Richard Delalande (1657-1726) that opened the concert showcased the players with a rich, spongy blend on the “Simphonie,” witty terraced dynamics for the “Noël Cette Journée,” and Suzanne Stumpf’s hushed, woody flute dialoging with Irons and Sarah Darling’s infectious violin ritornelli on “Où S’en Vont Ces Gays Bergers.” Daniel Ryan’s cello and Michael Bahmann’s harpsichord propelled their colleagues through these Noëls and throughout the program. Even with the rare technical slip, such as Darling’s (bewilderingly uncharacteristic) squeaks during the arrangement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by Nicholas Chédeville (1705-1782), neither the soloist nor her accompaniment lost momentum or interpretive consistency.
Stumpf’s warm lead and ingratiating trills in the central “Largo” showed the group’s élan with slower, more introspective moments. For Werner’s dreamlike “Il Somno” section, the players sustained a fragile lyricism sporadically shattered by nightmarish intrusions, turning an obscurity into touching drama. They provided sensitive accompaniment behind soprano Kristen Watson for Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755)’s cantata L’Hiver, an unforgiving exploration of the season’s most unforgiving moments.
Watson’s smooth, finely centered voice is well suited to this repertoire, never turning shrill or mannered. She handled fast divisions and melismata (such as the particularly tortuous turns on the air “Souverain maître du tonerre…”) with aplomb, only faltering and losing her otherwise fine diction on the torrential, Vivaldian air “Le vents brisent leur chaines…” Otherwise her ornaments were clear and apposite to text and mood. In “Quelle amiable fete…” she navigated Boismortier’s harmonically searching lines (similar to his contemporary Rameau) with security and enthusiasm. A singing actress, Watson convincingly delivered the stylized texts, such as her audible fear at the ravages of nature, or phrasing “Is it your will to destroy your own work, and overturn your own altars?” as an actual question to nature.
The afternoon ended with three settings of songs taken from Shakespeare’s plays by British composer Thomas Arne (1710-1788). Tuneful and charming, these works suffer from some awkward word setting, which Watson more than compensated for with firm technique and more bright delivery. Even the somewhat cliché voice and flute birdcall in “The Owl” became a serious, sensual musical device. MOPR in turn backed the soprano with their usual finesse and power.
With rhythm and energy like this, one wonders if they do parties: they’re sure to enliven any venue regardless of season. In the meantime, audiences are fortunate to have them enlivening so much music from forgotten places.
This program will be repeated on Sunday, December 18 at 4:00pm at First Unitarian Church in Worcester. Tickets are available for purchase online here.
Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz and blogs on a variety of music at clefpalette.wordpress.com. He plays clarinet and lives in Cambridge.