Newport Classical’s Saturday Night festival concert brought the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra to the Breakers Mansion in a delightful HIP of Handel, Biber, and a newly commissioned East Coast Premiere of American composer Mason Bates Appalachian Ayre. With only a three-day notice, guest conductor Christine Brandes adroitly filled in on the podium for Music Director Richard Egarr, skillfully pulling and stretching those notes that gave structure and direction to the musical lines, all the while keeping an energetic pace without losing sight of the tactus (basic pulse) which remained steady throughout the many changes of time and tempo. She telegraphed a palpable connection, and the 19 players responded accordingly.
The opus 3 concerti grossi in F Major No. 4, the D Minor No. 5, and the B-flat Major No. 2 took pride of center place in spirited and lively readings; the mournful dialogue of two solo celli in the Largo movement of the B-flat Concerto served as a backdrop to an expressively executed and beautifully ornamented solo oboe line. The dialogue of the two solo violins in the previous movement of the same concerto, had created sonically thrilling stereophony. The paired dialogues, so much a feature of this concerto, showed the strong influence of the Italian style of Corelli, which Handel adapted and made his own. One can have a great deal of fun playing the guessing game: “Where did Handel get this theme from?” The answer quite often is that he borrowed from many of his own works, and one can become fully absorbed in trying to discern sources, sometimes multiple ones within a single work. You can read more about this in the very well-written (though uncredited) program notes.
The Sinfonia from Handel’s oratorio Saul had opened the concert. Like the French overture, the Italian sinfonia with its alternating fast-slow sections anticipated the symphony form of the Classical era. A suite from the Mensa Sonora of the Salzburg composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, an important predecessor of Bach followed from a solo group of three plus continuo, which in addition to the bass line and harpsichord, also utilized theorbo (bass lute).
The remaining two concerti followed the break, with the East Coast Premiere of Appalachian Ayre in between. Mason Bates, the first-ever composer-in-residence of the Kennedy Center, crosses cultural and tech boundaries with his innovative and creative approach. Bates remarked of this work:
The early manner of holding the bow, brought over by the early colonists from the Old World, remained frozen in time as bluegrass fiddling spread through America. There are also some melodic ornaments that connect these seemingly disparate genres, and the plectrum sounds of the theorbo are a predecessor to the banjo. Enamored of both Americana and Baroque music, I created this lyrical homage to both.
We heard a fascinating, lyrical, and beautiful work, in which American bluegrass fiddle music, early music airs common to colonial America, and marvelous bluegrass stylizations echoed in dialogues between the theorbo and the harpsichord. Brandes’s gave an affective, sympathetic, and glistening read. One could picture timeless strains echoing through the valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The concert closed with the Sinfonia to Solomon, commonly titled Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. New England listeners will fondly remember this as an opening (along with the dawn chorus of birds) to the long-running Morning Pro Musica on WGBH with host Robert J. Lurtsema. This fitting, if unintended allusion, closed a delightful and memorable concert with a suggestion, to me, at least, of that well-remembered voice.
Stephen Martorella is Minister of Music at The First Baptist Church in America, Providence, Rhode Island, and teaches at Rhode Island College.