The musicians at the Ospedale della Pietà, the girls’ orphanage at which Vivaldi taught, performed behind a metal grating. While the performers were on full view on Sunday, as music director Martin Pearlman wryly observed, the definitions of space in WGBH’s Calderwood Studio—the curtained entrance wall, the grating-clad wall opposite it, the inherent remove of ‘studio’ spaces as a genre—evoke the hidden and separate.
What good fortune, then, to be hidden away with the musicians of Boston Baroque above the Mass Pike, protected from strong winds and intermittent fog during an expertly rendered celebration of communal, sacred music (and, perhaps, a newly won Boston spring).
Before the printed selections, the program began with the Lysenko hymn “Prayer for Ukraine”. Absent a chorale’s characteristic rhythmic polyphony, a delightfully insistent core appearing intermittently in the viola and first violin sounds served as an especially crucial element in creating and dissolving tension within the phrase. The choral sound, meanwhile—resonant, smooth, and unflinching—let the harmonies’ solemnity speak simply. While many presenters of late have (rightly) added tributes in acknowledgement of Ukrainian suffering in the face of Russian invasion, it felt especially important in advance of such a celebratory program to acknowledge first what there is to mourn.
The main selections, Vivaldi’s Gloria (RV 589) and Handel’s Ode for St. Cecelia’s Day, represented a formidable survey of Baroque techniques and textures. But at the evening’s highest points, any awareness of technique vanished, and the expert music-making on offer allowed the listener to consider the higher themes brought forward by the pieces’ texts—the power of music to glorify, to emote, and, after a fashion, to define and even create elements of our human experience.
The strings’ articulation in the introductory movement, full of celebratory pomp but never rendered too roughly or too daintily, displayed a truly impressive group sensibility that allowed the work’s opening character to present itself clearly. This clarity of touch—apparent, too, in the tenors’ brilliant ease in the “Propter magnam gloriam tuam”—characterized many of the brighter movements and truly spoke to qualities perhaps inherent in sacred music—energy without edge, zeal without chaos. This care was apparent, too, in movements like the “Qui sedes,” in which Pearson’s carefully tempered gestures helped create a propellant but unhurried tripartite pulse. Never too boisterous or heavy with a downbeat, his immaculately controlled smaller gestures created a richly detailed sense of rhythmic character, even in moments with more expansive pulses.
The work’s more lyrical moments provided similar opportunities for loftier meditations. Among the admirable solo singing on offer from chorus members, Carrie Cheron’s work in the “Agnus dei” stood out especially—her lush but simple tone evoked the urgency and plaintiveness quintessential to prayers for mercy and redemption. So, too, did cellist Michael Untermann’s dazzling playing—whether dealing with more melodic or supportive material, his leadership and musical conviction brought together many an accompanimental moment in service of an emotive project.
The fugue that closes the work, which the program notes observed as more stylistically ‘conservative’ than its fellow movements, marked a return to the celebratory. As the declamatory subject and energetic countersubject wove and sparred, more sustained singing from the tenors and others allowed longer harmonic lines to emerge. Conservative or not, the movement’s sense of grandeur built towards its dramatic peaks, and the ensemble’s interpretation set the table for the cosmic stakes and scale of the Handel that followed.
While Pearson dutifully noted instances in which Handel has attempted ‘tone painting’ in service of vivifying the Dryden text, the day’s performance of the St. Cecelia’s Day Ode certainly reinforced the notion advanced by the text—that instruments and voices can best essentialize human emotions. Rufus Müller’s piercing, effortless “arise,” Elena Villalón’s luxuriously expressed ruminations on the passions that music “[raises] and [quells],”—the remarkable solo singing was at the forefront of substantiating the themes of the text. Müller’s ease and lightness seemed perfectly apropos for the repertoire, while Villalón’s tone proved irresistible.
The ensemble showed a similar capacity for bringing textual matters to life. The unapologetic (and appropriate) brassiness of Jesse Levine’s ‘clangorous trumpet,’ the ‘[softness]’ of Joseph Monticello’s ‘complaining’ flute, the violins’ dense, low playing in the ‘depths of passion’—on many occasions, the sounds seemed to encapsulate those that must have inspired Dryden’s assertions.
Outside of moments of direct evocation, the ensemble playing in the Handel just as strong as in the Vivaldi. Whether another stunning and spare turn from Untermann, Leopold, and Peter Sykes during Villalón’s first aria or a moment of full-choral body at the opening of the Finale, the always-precise and never heavy-handed group achieved a robustly expressive character. During that final movement, I noticed many gazing towards the quasi-galactic display of lights on the right-hand wall of the space—some proof of a successful evocation of the cosmic.
For musicianship like this, I would follow Boston Baroque behind any grate. With a program perfectly suited to the moment, the ensemble created an afternoon of praise and celebration well worthy of hearty praise and celebration in turn.