We are fortunate that internationally famous music ensembles often visit Berkeley, especially in the years of the biennial Early Music Festival. But during the festival’s off years we can be glad that there is a rich vein of local talent that mounts concerts of pre-Classical music performed in authentic period style.
The ensemble “Mostly Baroque” will perform a program of mostly little-known pieces, with a bit of the familiar as balance. In keeping with historical accuracy the string players use gut strings, the flutes are keyless and made of wood, the singers and instrumentalists banish vibrato except for intentional ornamentation, and the volume level is appropriate for a Baroque salon. Discerning ears can hear and appreciate the difference.
Both halves of the concert begin with well-known composers: G.F. Handel and J.S. Bach.
The Handel sonata for recorder and violin cements the fact that these players have mastered the mainstream composers and earned the right to mine hidden treasures. Although Handel is mostly known for his oratorios, his chamber music is also highly melodic, avoiding the endless arpeggio that is the stuff of second-rate Baroque works.
A brief harpsichord canzona by Giovanni Trabaci reveals the ensemble’s intention to bring to light brilliant but unknown masterpieces. A chromatic run forms the basis of the first melodic theme in a bold experiment stretching the confines of modal structure. Harpsichordist Dawn Kooyumjian shows that she can plumb the depths of solo works in addition to weaving skillful continuo parts from figured bass lines.
This is followed by two vocal works by Barbara Strozzi, a talented composer who deserves more attention, as these works demonstrate. The duet “Begli Occhi” is a miniature cantata which varies quickly in mood, by turns bouncy and melancholy as its text displays love and despair. Given the same text, a lesser composer might have built an unrelenting panorama of sadness. Yet Strozzi emphasizes that even dashed hopes are still hopes. Alto Joyce Todd and soprano Jennifer Torresen blend well and yet maintain individual character so the solo passages retain dramatic contrast.
“Salve Regina” features another stunning chromatic passage and some harmonically daring chord progressions. Todd seems transported by the mystic piety of the text, which she delivers with clarity and grace. Surely this piece must become a part of the standard repertory, or at least a signature piece for Todd.
Bass Richard Strumpf closes the first half with Clerambault’s solo cantata “Polipheme” in which the Cyclops professes love for a sea-nymph, succumbs to jealousy and kills his rival with a boulder. Fortunately the music is neither monstrous nor wicked. Strumpf handles the refined recitatives well and shapes a sympathetic character during the dramatic arias which deliver deep passion and moral instruction with sweet melodies.
The second half of the program begins with Bach’s Trio Sonata BWV 526 for organ as arranged by the ensemble’s flute and recorder player Glenn Shannon for recorder, violin, cello and harpsichord. This arrangement highlights melodies in ways the organ version cannot. This piece rocks!
Boismortier’s sonata for three flutes presents thick harmonies and lively counterpoint. A nice showcase piece.
The concluding work on the program, Clerambault’s “Amour and Bacchus” provides the most fun. It presents a lively debate between the deities of Love and Wine, in which both assert their superiority over the other. In the end, they swear allegiance and peace, because “when we are together, pleasures are more sweet.”
Those who already have plans for Saturday night can take heart in the fact that the program will be repeated on Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. in San Francisco at St. Thomas Episcopal church at 2725 Sacramento St.