in: Reviews

November 17, 2013

Early Music: Two Generations

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Two period instrument ensembles gave concerts this weekend in Harvard Square. On Friday night Grand Harmonie presented “Who’s Your Plus One?”, a program of classical-era works for strings and winds, and on Saturday the Sarasa Ensemble offered “A Baroque Mural” of Purcell, Bach, Handel, and Frazin.

Grand Harmonie is a young group with a core set of wind players and an ad hoc collection of string players. The winds, in general, proved stronger than the strings on Friday night. Sarah Paysnick was the “plus one” in Mozart’s Quartet for Flute and Strings in C Major. Her wooden flute blended into the ensemble better than the modern silver instrument creating a more integrated and less soloistic impression. Kristin Olson, a New York oboist, was the “plus one” in Mozart’s Quartet for Oboe and Strings in F Major. Here the 18th-century oboe stood out against the strings but spoke with a greater flexibility than its modern equivalent. The Adagio movement was particularly beautiful with hauntingly executed lines.

On the second half, Yoni Kahn performed Louis-François Dauprat’s Quintet for Horn and Strings in E-flat Major. Dauprat, apparently, was an early 19th-century horn maven who composed like a duller, lightweight, Beethoven. But Kahn worked magic on the natural horn and gave a fascinating performance following a captivating demonstration and explanation of his instrument. By manipulating his right hand in the bell, he can produce (or sometimes trick the ear into hearing) all 12 chromatic pitches. The effect is much less consistent than on the modern valve horn, but this older instrument is full of color and has a mercurial personality all its own.

Breaking with the “plus one” format, the string players also performed Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor Op. 20 “Sun” by themselves. This is heavy Haydn that seems to anticipate Schubert with its lyricism, cyclical returns, and moody minor key. Violinists Dorian Bandy and Emily Dahl, violist Elaine Leisinger, and cellist Zoe Weiss didn’t seem to fully mesh as a quartet and could have dug in with more precision. The resonant acoustic of the First Church Congregation was also unkind to clarity.

Sarasa, in existence since 1997, is a much older group with a revolving cast of established performers. Saturday’s program of mostly vocal music featured mezzo-soprano Krista River in a first half fashioned around the life of the Virgin Mary. Handel’s “Haec est Regina virginum” was a stately and beautifully executed invocation. “Schliesse, mein Herze,” an aria from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, gave River a chance to convey the contemplative and highly personal side of Bach’s faith and musicianship. Then in Purcell’s “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation,” she took on the role of Mary searching for the lost teenage Jesus. Through voice and persona River can really carry the drama of a one-character scene.

This was followed by Howard Frazin’s “The Crucifixion” – a world premiere. No, Frazin is not an obscure baroque composer and this piece was not brought to the light of day from a dusty archive. He’s a composer in our midst (and my own longtime composition teacher) and this piece was hot off the press. Using a medieval text, Frazin focused on the suffering of Mary at the crucifixion of her son. His contemporary use of baroque instruments was generally colorful and idiomatic, but sometimes his harmonic changes rubbed against the unequal temperament of the harpsichord and forceful moments in the violin and cello seemed unnatural to the period instruments with their convex bows. Other surprising uses for these instruments were very effective, however, including the chilling use of the harpsichord’s muted buff stop in its lowest register. Overall, with its clear drama and thoughtful text setting, this piece seems a successful entry in the small catalog of modern music for baroque instruments.

Throughout the program, violinist Christina Day Martinson, cellist Timothy Merton, and harpsichordist Maggie Cole provided a settled context for River’s expressive voice. The purely instrumental selections were also solid, if more forgettable than the vocal offerings. Cole played Purcell’s Harpsichord Suite in G Minor and Ground in E Minor, Merton played Gabrielli’s Cello Sonata in G Major, and after intermission Martinson played Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 4 in C Minor – the most engaging of these selections. The program ended with River back on the stage of the Friend’s Meeting House for Handel’s “Un’ alma innamorata,” a saucy cantata about a girl with a lifestyle far removed from that of Saint Mary.

It was suggested that the concert might have been titled “The Virgin and the Whore,” but this was vetoed in favor of “A Baroque Mural,” keeping the presentation firmly within the comfort zone of a mostly middle aged and elderly audience. As an ensemble, Sarasa has a mellow maturity that contrasts with the electricity of Grand Harmonie’s scrappy youth. Even within the tight-knit community of period performance, it seems that different generations of musicians deliver experiences a world apart.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a Cambridge-based composer who’s recently been in residence at the Banff Centre and the Hambidge Center. Before that he attended Bard College where he studied with Joan Tower and George Tsontakis and earned a B.M. in composition and a B.A. in philosophy.

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