Ringing in the new year with a full-length program on New Year’s Eve and again on New Year’s Day in Sanders Theater at Harvard University is a joyful tradition for Boston Baroque. This year’s second performance was, for the first time, broadcast to an immense radio audience from Maine to Hawaii by Public Radio International. The format for this concert has usually encompassed two or three purely instrumental works and a one-act opera (or two). Curiously, the printed program included no notes, though we learned a few interesting facts about each work and composer when conductor Martin Pearlman chatted with radio host Cathy Fuller between pieces.
The unusually structured Concerto Grosso in D Major, Op. 6, No. 7 of Arcangelo Corelli kicked off the proceedings. A work of five movements, with the first subdivided into three sections, its salient characteristic was its range of moods: from dryly witty to contemplative, ebullient to plaintive. Though there was not an abundance of memorable melodic material, one could relish the dialogue between concertino and ripieno and, within the ripieno, antiphonal exchanges between the first and second violins. Pearlman led a fine performance with élan as well as introspection.
Alessandro Marcello’s Concerto for Oboe in D Minor won’t seem familiar “on paper” to most, but many will recognize it as soon as they hear it thanks to a transcription by Johann Sebastian Bach. Marc Schachman’s playing on a Baroque oboe of gentler tone than its modern descendant was notable for its suppleness and expressivity. These qualities reached their apex in the beautiful and plangent slow movement, full of aching appoggiaturas and fluid ornamentation (as supplied by J. S. Bach). An interesting conceit of Marcello in this Adagio was to accompany the soloist much of the time with only upper strings (violins and violas), creating a somewhat otherworldly lamentation. The concluding Presto was actually played allegro, but this was only sensible as it allowed Schachman time for agogic accents and made the more elaborate ornaments possible. It remained an impressive display piece, but one that did not forego expressivity. Soloist and orchestra alike were deft and graceful.
Next we heard Georg Philipp Telemann’s Concerto for Flute and Recorder in E Minor, TWV 52. It was the composer’s happy inspiration to choose for soloists two instruments of very similar but not identical timbre. When they played separately, their difference was paramount, but when both played together, one mainly heard their similarity. (The flute was, of course, a period instrument and thus made of wood.) The superb soloists were Christopher Krueger, Baroque flute, and Aldo Abreu, recorder. They displayed consummate musicianship whether closely intertwining with each other or making elegant solo statements. The second Largo particularly caught my interest for its elegant pizzicato accompaniment and the soloists’ imaginative ornamentation. The final Presto was especially delectable, interestingly similar to the Christmas tune “Pat-a-pan” with a drone in the bass. Abreu and Krueger engaged in friendly competition in the brilliant solo passages as well as sensitive collaboration.
After an intermission featuring champagne courtesy of Cambridge Trust Company, the audience was herded with impressive efficiency back to their seats. Mustn’t keep a nationwide radio audience waiting! The second half consisted of the operatic “interlude” La serva padrona (The Maid Mistress), the most famous work of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, whose death at age 26 deprived the music world of a major talent. The cast consists of two singing roles: Uberto, the unmarried master of the house, and Serpina, his young maidservant, and one mute role, Vespone, a manservant. These were filled respectively by bass baritone David Kravitz, soprano Sara Heaton (filling in on short notice for the indisposed Courtney Huffman), and actor Remo Airaldi. The plot is another variation on the theme of the slow-witted master manipulated by a crafty servant, a trope going back to ancient Greek and Roman comedy. The wrinkle here is that the maid has designs of marrying her employer who is in denial about his amorous feelings toward her.
Having displayed outstanding musical and comic gifts in prior Boston Baroque New Year’s performances, Kravitz was a natural choice for Uberto. He made the most, musically and dramatically, of his character’s futile attempts to assert his authority in the face of his determined maid; his firm, resonant tone seems quite convincingly dominant–until his maid appears! Yet when Uberto’s ultimate capitulation comes, he has demonstrated his feelings for Serpina sufficiently that the outcome is more satisfying than mere farce. Though Heaton had to carry a score around with her, she certainly knew her music well enough to interact fully with both of her colleagues. She used her sweet lyric sound to render Uberto all but helpless but also enacted the “iron fist in the velvet glove” to pressure Vespone to assist her scheme. Despite having nothing to say or sing, Airaldi was a brilliant comic actor when onstage, using wonderfully varied facial expressions and body language tailored to whichever character he was assisting at a given moment. His knowledge of the actual score enabled him to lip-synch several times to hilarious effect. The orchestra and Pearlman fully realized both the comedy and the beauty of the score. Let us raise a glass to the continuation of a noble New Year’s tradition—and its expansion to a nationwide radio audience.