New: Biennial Berkeley Festival & Exhibition Returns

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Wednesday June 06, 2018 - 03:40:00 PM

Under the aegis of The San Francisco Early Music Society, the biennial Berkeley Festival & Exhibition opened on Sunday, June 3, and runs through Sunday, June 10. This much-loved festival brings together musicians, scholars, instrument-makers, and just plain folks who cherish early music. As in past years, I plan to attend as many main-stage events as I can, beginning with the Monday evening concert I attended in St. Mark’s Church featuring soprano Christine Brandes and Baroque violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock. Rounding out the instrumental ensemble were Mary Springfels on viola da gamba and Katherine Heater on harpsichord. The program featured two French cantatas centered on notorious women who enacted violent retribution against their male counterparts.  

Opening the concert was the cantata Judith by Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre. Born in 1665 to a family of musicians and instrument-makers, Jacquet de la Guerre showed such early musical talent that at age 15 she was taken into the court of Louis XIV and placed under the tutelage of the king’s mistress, Madame de Montespan. Later she became the first woman to compose an opera in French, Céphale et Procris, based on the myth told by Ovid. Jacquet de la Guerre’s cantata Judith was based on the Biblical tale of Judith severing the head of Holofernes and thereby saving the people of Israel. Christine Brandes used her crystalline soprano voice to bring the human character of Judith to life, and the instrumental accompaniment was exquisite. Likewise, the program’s second work, Marin Marais’s Sonnerie de Sainte-Genevieve, was given an exquisite rendition by Blumenstock, Springfels, and Heater.  

After intermission, the instrumental ensemble performed Sonata in A Major by Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-17764), then accompanied Christine Brandes in the cantata Médée by Louis-Nicholas Clerambault (1676-1749). In this version of the Medea story, Medea’s violence is turned not on her own children by the unfaithful Jason but only on his new bride. Christine Brandes brought great intensity and expressiveness to her vocal portrayal of Medea, and there were moving instrumental passages from Elizabeth Blumenstock on violin, Mary Springfels on viola da gamba, and Katherine Heater on harpsichord.  

If this excellent concert is any indication of what is to come, this year’s Berkeley Festival & Exhibition promises many glorious opportunities to hear fine performances of early music. Among many highlights are performances by Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players on Thursday, June 7, Voices of Music performing Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and the Belgian chorale ensemble Vox Luminis in two concerts June 8 and 10.