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Celebratory Hat Tips to Boston Baroque

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Sonja Tengblad and Justin Bland (BB photo)

New Year’s Eve with Boston Baroque at WGBH’s Calderwood Studio lit up in seasonal display, as founder and Music Director Martin Pearlman raised spirits with era-lights Boyce, Biber, Bach, and Handel brightened by the antiphonal singing of soprano Sonja Tengblad and trumpeter Justin Bland. And some surprises were in store for revelers.

Opening with William Boyce’s Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major, BB offered an easygoing Allegro, conceivably nostalgic Moderato e dolce, and a fittingly jolly Allegro, with wind instruments rounding out the predominate strings; all these period instruments sounded in an optimistic, youthful utterance of clearly Baroque parlance. With its concert booklet’s headline “North America’s First Permanent Baroque Orchestra” comes a reminder of Pearlman’s having been at the helm now for a half century.

Continuing in an attitude of English air, Pearlman forged a set of instrumental and vocal pieces with Handel’s Concerto grosso in D Major, Op. 6, No. 5. Pearlman possibly provided a clue to the master’s Baroque engineering, noting the Menuet as an unusual closing movement, describing it as “gentle, graceful.” Many listeners were curious about the strange looking theorbo, a large upright plucked and mostly inaudible instrument.

Some may speculate on internal matters of programing such as the fact of all but one of the pieces having been conceived in the homing key of D major, including the two arias of Handel. “Eternal Source of Light Divine” (from Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne) and “Let the Bright Seraphim” (from Samson) found fluorescent brillliance with Sonja Tengblad and Justin Bland. Their tonal coloring fairly well matched. Often smiling and joyful, Tengblad finely controlled those extended virtuosic note-streams on a single syllable (melismas). Bland, appearing as if carried away, eloquently trumpeted on that valve-less era instrument taking us along with him on a regal, and in ways, humanistic, tour. 

Along with the announcement that Calderwood Studio’s multiple cameras would be streaming the concert internationally came BB’s welcoming the New Year’s Eve audience to be sure to show its enthusiasm—that drawing chuckles. This venue, seating some 200 in close proximity to the musicians, allowed for closeup engagement, quite different from Sanders Theatre for BB’s New Year’s Day performance. 

Guiding New Year’s Eve program into unsuspecting places as he is so often inclined, Pearlman committed a well-tuned ensemble to Battalia á 10, the home key being D major. Dating from both pre-Bach/Handel, the descriptive, if not eccentric, work from 1673 by Bohemian-Austrian composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber still surprises—and would truly surprise, perhaps even shock—revelers unfamiliar with this Baroque outlier. However, Pearlman gave it all away in his preface to the piece. A reduced orchestra transparently created the battle lifelike as Biber had intended. Readers not knowing the piece might listen in—without prior inside info. Such fun, such disbelief!

Guiding the program’s overall design further, esteemed Pearlman ended the evening, sharply contrasting Biber’s Battalia with Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068. Three period trumpets and timpani joined the string base in a lambent offering. The well-coursed Air on a g string revealed much about Pearlman, where he found rare familiarity, closeness, and grace, as soft-spoken characters actualized in a most tender drama. The Air reigns as the highlight of any number of highlights, human imperfections aside. For certain, though, Pearlman and Boston Baroque posted an insightful musical celebration of the imminent 2024.  

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).  www.notescape.net

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