“De Profundis,” was the title of Boston Baroque’s Jordan Hall concert on Friday. Director Martin Pearlman highlighted the group’s chorus, a body of singers made up of two-dozen excellent soloists who come together to create a fascinating and effective blend of individual and ensemble musicianship. Each piece on the concert exploited these chorus-cum-soli colors in various ways. Each had parts for both full choir and solo singers, and Pearlman’s choice here was simply to have the latter step forward from the former, sing their parts, and then step back to become part of the whole again.
The program opened with Giacomo Carissimi’s oratorio Jephte, based on the tragic biblical story of a Hebrew general who, in exchange for victory in battle, promises God a sacrifice of the first living thing he sees upon his return, only to find his young daughter greet him happily at the gate. Carissimi’s post-Monteverdian style allowed him to create an effective, though surprisingly dissonance-light work of emotional whiplash, as the story starts full of victorious joy but abruptly turns dismal when the title character realizes his mistake. Most of this psychological drama, however, is not found in the part of the father, but rather in that of his daughter who, though she is simply referred to as “Filia”, is actually the central figure. The part was sung by soprano Theresa Wakim, whose stunning performance was the highlight of the evening. She was able to completely inhabit the role of an innocent girl who loves her father and is suddenly faced with the fact that he must kill her. Though Filia is too young to really understand it, she knows that it is God’s will, and so faces her fate with as much dignity as she can. While Carissimi did a fine job of writing this jarring emotional trajectory into the part, it was Wakim who was beautifully able to bring out the nuances of the music, from childlike glee to heartbreakingly confused sorrow, all supported by a glowing voice and nearly flawless technique. The one disadvantage to her performance was that it was almost an impossible act to follow.
It was wise, then, that Pearlman chose Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Missa, Assumpta est Maria to follow the Carissimi. This work is primarily an ensemble piece, though it contains brilliant bouncing back and forth between tutti passages and duets, trios, and quartets. Pearlman allowed his singers to indulge in this interplay by pulling the soloists from all across the group, creating a lovely spacial effect, the sonic equivalent of sunbeams through a wall of stained glass. This effect complemented Charpentier’s silvery string-and-flute textures, captured skillfully by the ensemble’s instrumentalists. It also made the final, yearning, Agnus dei, set for full-ensemble all the way through, that much more powerful a contrast.
After intermission, the group performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, a deeply moving work of small proportions and even smaller instrumentation. It provided the singers with a more intimate textural space in which to move between solo and ensemble work; and, occasionally, doing both at the same time—one of the composer’s ingeniously expressive hallmarks. It was a fine performance of truly beautiful music, and would have made for a lovely close to a full evening.
The piece that did end the concert, however, was George Frideric Handel’s Chandos Anthem No. 8 “O Come, Let Us Sing”, though it was perhaps not the best choice for a closer. A charming enough work—a sort of “Messiah-lite” with more awkward text-to-music scansion—it seemed, however, somewhat pale compared to the other pieces on the program. It is also longer than it should be, so that using it to round off a long program ended up taxing the listener somewhat. Still, it did give some of the singers another chance to shine. Tenor Owen McIntosh, though too young, vocally and in his stage presence, to carry the part of Jephte in which he was cast at the beginning of the program, was much better suited as soloist in the aria “The Lord preserveth the souls.” His youthful, energetic voice brought a smooth brilliance to the words and music. Equally brilliant and a bit more intense was the steely voice of tenor Jonas Budris, whose joyous delivery of “For look, as high as the heaven” almost made the audience forget completely that they were in their third hour of listening; and, as the penultimate song on the program, it gave one last burst of soloistic light before the final chorus.
Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.