in: Reviews

January 3, 2014

Boston Baroque Follows Fine Pattern

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Following somewhat the pattern of the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Eve and Day concerts, the venerable period-instrument band Boston Baroque (celebrating its 40th anniversary this season) seems to have formed a similar if younger tradition here. However, while the Vienna concerts salute the Strauss waltz dynasty exclusively, Boston Baroque’s concerts at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre present a varied array of Baroque composers in both vocal and instrumental music under Martin Pearlman’s seasoned direction. And for the third year, WCRB and Public Radio International with host Cathy Fuller broadcast nationwide the live performance on New Year’s Day.

This year’s program was, atypically, devoted entirely to a single composer: Johann Sebastian Bach. The first piece, a perfect choice for New Year’s, was the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, whose opening features a pair of recorders playing cascading arpeggios—the aural equivalent of spraying champagne bottles. In fact there were three superb soloists: recorder-players Aldo Abreu and Christopher Krueger and violinist Christina Day Martinson who smoothly transitioned between the roles of soloist and concertmaster. While Bach’s title places the violin first “with the accompaniment of two recorders,” etc., it usually seems the reverse, at least until the solo violin gets two breathtaking series of lightning-bolt runs, one in the first and one in the last movement. Martinson handled these brilliantly. Pearlman and the orchestra were light-footed, allowing Abreu and Krueger a subtle range of dynamics on their relatively soft-toned instruments. The mournful slow movement was beautiful, replete with sighs; especially affecting was the passage near the end when the solo trio are left on their own momentarily. Wearing its learning lightly, the fugal finale was like an entertaining conversation attracting more and more participants.

The first vocal work on the concert was Bach’s “Wedding Cantata” with a secular text (though it has a number of counterparts with sacred texts). On a day of plummeting temperatures, we indulged in some wishful thinking: its first line translates, “Depart, melancholy shadows; frost and winds, go to rest!” In addition, the two divinities invoked are Flora (representing spring flowers) and Phoebus (Apollo), the sun god. Soprano Courtney Huffman has a bright, fresh sound that was beguiling in this sweet if un-profound text. Her rather generic gestures were more distracting than communicative, but if one looked elsewhere and simply listened, hers was an elegant performance. Oboist Marc Schachman and Huffman duetted with evocative beauty in the first aria. The singer’s silky legato therein contrasted well with her energetic coloratura in the second aria, illustrating Phoebus and his horses racing through the new-born world. And kudos to the continuo players who vigorously depicted Phoebus’s horses: Peter Sykes, harpsichord; Sarah Freiberg, cello; and Deborah Dunham, violone.

After a festive intermission (champagne supplied), the Boston Baroque string players gave us the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major with Pearlman leading from the harpsichord. With a leap and a bound the swift anapests did indeed throng throughout the ebullient first movement. The two-chord second “movement” was slightly expanded into a miniature cadenza, played stylishly and expressively by Martinson. The final movement was a fun game of catch-me-if-you-can that happily resisted the widespread trend of “Roadrunner on amphetamines” tempi in this movement. One could delight in the rollicking Allegro (as Bach marked it) rather than be merely impressed by the virtuosity of a headlong Presto.

A frequent facet of Boston Baroque’s New Year’s concerts is the inclusion of a comic one-act opera or cantata. This year we enjoyed Bach’s Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (Be quiet, stop chattering), better known as the “Coffee Cantata,” which tells the tale of two extremists, father and daughter, at odds over the latter’s coffee addiction. At one end of the stage is the Scrooge-like Herr Schlendrian, at the other a table with coffee-maker and mugs, and oscillating between the two is Schlendrian’s daughter Lieschen. After tenor Matthew Anderson, as the slyly deadpan narrator, sets the scene (Schlendrian “growling like a honey bear”), the father has an aria inveighing against disobedient children who cause their parents “endless trials and tribulations.” In Schlendrian’s first aria Bach’s music is deliberately difficult—think of a huffing and puffing old man—but the singer must first master its challenges before he can paint the portrait; baritone Andrew Garland was highly successful on all counts. Then father and daughter share a recitative that encapsulates the drama in comically exaggerated language: “You wicked child . . . Give up coffee!” “Father, don’t be so severe! If I can’t drink my bowl of coffee three times daily, then in my torment I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat!” Soprano Courtney Huffman returned to portray daughter Lieschen with noteworthy comedic talent, e.g., her loud moaning delivery of “Qual” (“torment”). In her succeeding aria praising the joys of coffee—“more delicious than a thousand kisses”—the soprano sang seductively and undulated with sensuous pleasure while Christopher Krueger delivered a lovely flute obbligato. Huffman’s gestures here were well-considered, enhancing the text she was delivering. The sour Schlendrian tries a number of ploys to achieve his end (holding Lieschen house prisoner, refusing to buy her the latest fashions, etc.)–all in vain: she can live with any of these conditions provided she has her coffee. But Papa soon hits upon another idea as he congratulates himself in a second aria: “if one finds their weak spot, ah! then one comes away successful.” Garland was an amusing mix of mock-suave and pompous. Schlendrian’s idea, we subsequently learn, is to threaten his daughter with spinsterhood unless she obeys him, and in fact she does capitulate (apparently). In her final aria Lieschen declares that a husband, a “proper lover,” is the one thing that could take the place of coffee; yet in Huffman’s eyes we saw the soubrette’s “gears turning” and sensed her plan was not so simple. The narrator then confirms this, explaining that Lieschen has secretly gotten the word out that no suitor should bother coming to her house unless he’ll promise to let her drink coffee whenever she likes. The final trio of Anderson, Garland, and Huffman, all holding mugs of coffee, was a comic delight. As Schlendrian acknowledges he has been outwitted, they sing, “A cat won’t stop from chasing mice”—if her mother and grandmother drank coffee, why should a daughter be forbidden to do it?

The comedy ostensibly continued in an encore by Garland: Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” being given the period-instrument treatment complete with harpsichord “continuo.” But in fact it had an urbane elegance that would likely have pleased Porter. Certainly, Garland’s handsome singing was the last word in genuine suavity as contrasted with Schlendrian’s faux version. My thanks once again to Boston Baroque and Martin Pearlman for another New Year’s Day concert of great skill and style.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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