IN: Reviews

Pleasure Gardens on Sandy Bay


Robert Mealy (file photo)
Robert Mealy (file photo)

What more can one want on a beautiful summer evening, than delightful music performed spectacularly well, in a jewelbox of a concert hall? The Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble led by violinist Robert Mealy, offered works for string orchestra Friday at Shalin Liu Center, beginning with one of the model concerti grossi by Corelli and contrasting that with examples of the form’s development by Handel and his contemporaries. The genre was eaten up by London society, who flocked to the pleasure gardens of the 18th century. From the outset we expected this concert would be a delight, the subtitle proclaimed it and the caliber of musicians meant that we knew they would live up to their billing. We heard this “[music] From the Pleasure Gardens of Europe” in a little place of paradise on Boston’s North Shore.

Violinists Robert Mealy and Sarah Darling were beautifully matched in brilliance, timbre and style for the concertino lines of the opening Concerto Grosso in D Major, Op. 6 No. 7 by Corelli. The quality of the music making in this opening work was so fresh and dynamic that one could almost see the work being created anew from moment to moment. This set the pattern for an evening in which the communication between individual musicians and between concertino and ripieno was palpable. The quality of sound for the Corelli was airy, light and spacious: a sound that was contrasted later in the program with a darker, more mellow sound for the northern classical compositions.

The second work, a Concerto by Thomas Arne, came as a delightful surprise. Thomas Arne was the son of a wealthy family and quite a prolific composer, though he’s mostly remembered now for writing “Rule Britannia,” (part of his nationalist epic, Alfred). This concerto was probably written for his son Michael to play at concerts in the pleasure gardens of London. A moody first movement that contrasted high and low strings, led to a couple of spectacular solo harpsichord movements played by Michael Sponseller, who covered himself with glory in passagework that the audience could only wonder at. The display of technical fireworks was followed by a declamatory, recitative-like passage, whose playing was so packed with pathos that one could almost discern the implied text. Mealy alternately playing soloist and leading the ensemble showed that he is not only a fine virtuoso but also a sensitive accompanist.

Handel’s Concerti Grossi Opus 6, were written as a kind of homage to Corelli’s, but with a northern European, classical flair and stature. The light airiness of Corelli’s works is replaced by a more solid, architectural structure and phrasing, and the ensemble played Handel’s Concerto Grosso Opus 6 Number 7 with a muscular, robust sound. This Handel concerto ends with a hornpipe, a characteristically odd dance from the British Isles. In his program notes Mealy included the following quote from a German friend of Handel, John Mattheson, who described the Hornpipe as, “something so extraordinary that one might think it originated from the court composers of the North or South Pole.”

Following intermission, Mealy’s sense of humor shone through in the Concerto Grosso by John Stanley, in which the concertino was taken by the well matched trio of Mealy, cellist Phoebe Carrai and Sponseller. The “learned” fugue was performed with expert clarity, and as elsewhere in the program, duet passages between Mealy and Darling were delightful.

The revelation of the evening was a Concerto Grosso by Capel Bond. Bond was a composer who grew up and remained in the English provinces, though he was well aware of the style of music of the capital (he started his own festival featuring Handel’s oratorios), and his music became popular there. His writing seemed darker and more serious than that of his more fashionable contemporaries. In the concertino group of Mealy, Darling and viola player Laura Jeppesen, one had the impression of three people thinking as one, and they produced an athletic performance. Of particular note was the ravishing third movement, Largo Andante, one of those pieces whose conclusion one regrets.

Throughout the evening, it was a joy to watch the members of the ensemble express musical phrasing and articulation through movement, and, since the violins and viola were standing, they had particular freedom to move. While in most of the pieces we became accustomed to watching smooth follow-through, in concert with the musical line, in the hornpipe one was suddenly aware that each phrase was interrupted by an odd swing in the opposite direction (perhaps a reference to lurching movement on board a vessel at sea): Mattheson’s comment about the peculiar nature of that dance was illustrated with great clarity. In the “Dances from Terpsichore” that concluded the evening Mealy and the band confirmed once again, their knowledge of the dance forms and steps and informed their playing.

The members of the ensemble who did not play solos also deserve mention for their sensitive, supportive and expert playing: violinists, Emily Dahl, Jesse Irons and Abigail Karr, cellist, Beiliang Zhu and bass player Robert Nairn.

There’s really nothing negative to say about this show beyond mention of a couple of momentary slightly muddy bass lines, and that perhaps the opening measure might have been a bit off kilter. This was a beautifully conceived program executed exquisitely.

A little side note: David Deveau opened the proceedings with a short request for support to reach Rockport Chamber Music Festival’s substantial fundraising goal. The best news was that Rockport has already raised 94% of that goal; the audience was simply being asked to do their part to fill the small gap left. How refreshing, in the current economic climate, in which orchestras and opera companies have been closing and going bankrupt left, right and center, to attend a concert in a beautiful, well-designed building which is part of a thriving chamber music series supported whole-heartedly by its relatively small community.

Letitia Stevens is a freelance classical singer, choral conductor and voice teacher.

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