Unexpected conclusion to Bach & Beyond

In review

OBSERVER Photos by Justin Goetz. Alan Giambattista plays the harpsichord.

The historic 1891 Fredonia Opera House hosted an unconventional matinee conclusion to this year’s Bach & Beyond Baroque Music Festival on Sunday. For the first time in the festival’s 24-year history, maestro Grant Cooper chose to program a complete oratorio. The work in question, a two-hour version of the seemingly omnipresent Messiah, was written by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759).

Handel, a contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), was a German-born English composer whose formidable presence within London’s music scene left a lasting impact upon musical activities in the British Isles, casting a long shadow from which subsequent English composers would not completely emerge until after the late-19th century. His Messiah was initially completed in 1741 and premiered in Dublin on April 13th, 1742. Subsequent revisions to the work yielded the staple of Western Classical Music Literature that audiences have come to appreciate for generations.

Originally scored for a modest ensemble of vocalists and instrumentalists, Messiah is frequently performed with overtly gargantuan orchestras and choirs, and some of these performances include audience participation, via “sing-along” or “sing-in” experiences. Cooper decided to program contrary to contemporary practices by presenting an intimate interpretation, utilizing a performance force that totaled 20 musicians. Regarding this decision, Cooper stated that, “our goal this year is to experience Messiah in a new way; to allow each aria (and chorus) to emerge with maximum transparency, trusting that the big picture emerges of its own accord.” That rationale, coupled with the “off-season” performance–Messiah is most frequently performed during the month of December in the United States–made this special experience a welcome novelty.

Vocalists Janet Brown, Dawn Pierce, Nathaniel McEwen and Steven Stull performed extensively as both featured soloists and four-voice chamber choir, supported by the International Baroque Soloists, which played with marvelous delicacy and grace. Brown’s voice soared with a seemingly effortless agility, complemented by Pierce’s lavish dark tone and rich vibrato. McEwen wielded a voice of exquisite facility and flexibility, and Stull–while occasionally sluggish in extended melismatic passages–brought impeccable clarity to the text with his strong baritone voice. The resulting transparency of the musical counterpoint, and the intimate setting in which it was performed, offered a refreshing perspective on a well-worn work. I have heard a multitude of live and recorded renditions of this epic composition; however, this performance was, by far, my favorite. Judging by the audience’s reaction, I do not believe I’m alone in this opinion. It was truly a rare, magical experience.

While I believe this year’s festival was well crafted in relation to the “doctrine of affects,” there did seem to be a musical frontier within which Cooper’s programs seldom venture: the realm of female composers. It would be fascinating to see and hear the result of programming these arguably underrepresented voices. Maria Margherita Grimani (fl. 1713 – 1718), for example, could have been an intriguing addition to Saturday evening’s performance, joining her many male, Italian compatriots in concert, perhaps even providing a more complete picture of the musical scene beyond Bach.

Jon Pascolini plays the contrabass.

Andrew Martin Smith is a composer, clarinetist, and Senior Adjunct Lecturer of Music at the State University of New York at Fredonia, where he teaches courses in music theory and composition.

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