Boston Baroque describes its New Directions series an “opportunity to explore and create synergy from opposing sides of the musical spectrum.” It’s some bright copy and the period instrument group more than lived up to it in the second concert of the series. Saturday night’s “Monologues” at Longy School of Music’s Pickman Concert Hall ranged from “the Baroque to the Contemporary” as promised, progressing through a cantata by Handel, one of Bach’s solo violin sonatas, to the premier of director Martin Pearlman’s Ricorso; the program cohered through the strength of its performers and gripping stories.
Handel’s Agrippina Condotta A Morire (Agrippina Condemned To Die) depicts the deposed Roman empress’s vacillation between anger at the deceiving ruler who ordered her execution and love of the same man, namely her son Nero, who she schemed to bring to power in the first place. Young Handel wrote this work during his years studying in Italy and must have relished the libretto’s emotional range.
Soprano Julianne Gearhart depicted not a hysterical inmate, but a noblewoman, , confronting her fate: coolly imagining the skies thundering in her opening aria, ironically underscoring “if you are just” in her prayer to Jove, turning confused and guilt-ridden for the emotionally as well as rhythmically moving arioso “God, how can I wish for the death of he who I gave life to,” maintaining a restrained but convincing stew of emotions before finally ejecting “what are you waiting for?” at her captors in the final aria. Gearhart let the text and apparently herself breathe, with clear diction and flowing runs making musical as well as dramatic sense. Secco recitative was interpreted as soliloquy and not filler between the arias, with chilling emphasis (and vibrato) on “Earth,” “die” and “thankless son.”
This interpretation worked off of urgency and rhythmic snap instead of gooey self-indulgence. Violinists Christina Day Martinson and Danielle Maddon, cellist Sarah Freiberg and harpsichordist/director Martin Pearlman kept up spry yet effective tempos, firm ensembles and crisp attacks. The penultimate aria included its own beautifully conceived dialog between Martinson and Freiberg. Yet everything cohered around the doomed Agrippina, who remained proud, aristocratic and maternal through the end.
With just a violin and the work of the composer she later explained she feels “most connected to,” violinist Martinson returned to the stage and kept up the same sense of confidence and intensity in Bach’s Sonata In G Minor For Unaccompanied Violin (BWV 1001). Her opening Adagio was seamless—played as though it was one breath or between two beats of one taut musical phrase. Toying with a proper, more metrical feeling and clearly not afraid of shaking up the narrative, here and in the more collage-like second movement fugue, she alternated sweet upper register phrases with jarring, at times deliberately grating (I assume) double-stops slightly behind the imagined but very clear beat. The Siciliano was more withdrawn, like someone dancing alone, with a plaintive top and a good chance to appreciate Martinson’s oaky, centered tone. This was a searing monologue—no words needed. The straightforward, driving Presto (no sewing machine autopilot here!) brought things to an awe-inspiring close.
Following intermission, the premier of the third act of Pearlman’s Finnegan’s Wake: An Operoar seemed as far removed from the previous works as one could get. Composer/conductor Pearlman had introduced the concert by gesturing to the panoply of percussion onstage and noting, “as you can see, it’s ‘new directions’ for Boston Baroque!” Pearlman scored James Joyce’s knotty modernist novel for spoken voice, flute, clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), violin, viola, double bass, piano and percussion (including timpani, vibraphone, tom-toms, gong and woodblocks among other instruments). Ricorso set the female protagonist’s closing words to a tonally and dramatically decentered twentieth-century soundscape.
Actress Paula Plum recited Anna Livia Plurabelle last words with conviction and meticulous cadences, as the seven instruments screeched, pounded, danced (returning a few times to a haunting triple-meter theme for flute and piano as well as swinging episodes for walking bass and ride cymbal), turned dense and impenetrable, then airy (for example in a snippet of an Irish folk tune on viola while the speaker remembers a fairground) and finally calm as the dying woman fades away, mid sentence.
As Pearlman pointed out, even in ideal circumstances it is difficult to absorb all of Joyce’s text; his setting flowed through and at the listener rather than allowing pinpoint analysis of each and every word. Highlights included a nightmarish lilt under ALP’s exclamation “you’re changing again,” shimmering strings and a disappointed thump for a description of her husband, and the piano’s vamping arpeggios over screeching violins and bass drone as ALP realizes, “I am passing out.” The ensemble was tight above all else, well suited to the overall air of dissonance, enclosure, and mystery as well as fear of the unknown to come. Rarely refined in the manner of Handel, obviously more diffuse than the Bach and of course coming from a very different harmonic aesthetic, this piece still seemed “of a place” with the previous works. This was music above all about talking to oneself, with musicians illustrating how revealing those conversations can be.