Arts & Events

Telemann and Purcell Featured at Berkeley Festival

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday June 08, 2018 - 06:53:00 PM

On Thursday, June 7, I attended two concerts of the ongoing Berkeley Festival & Exhibition presented by The San Francisco Early Music Society. The 4:00 concert at St. Mark’s Church featured Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players performing works known as the Paris Quartets by Georg Philipp Telemann. The 7:30 concert at First Congregational Church featured Voices of Music performing a semi-staged version of Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas with the San Francisco Girls Chorus.  

I still fondly recall my first encounter with Telemann’s chamber music, which happened to be in a ceramics and textile shop in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, back in 1967. The well-appointed shop in this historic town had an excellent sound system and the music I heard was Telemann’s chamber music featuring recorder. It struck me as so fresh, lively, and joyful that I’ve never forgotten it. Thursday afternoon’s concert at St. Mark’s featured transverse flute rather than recorder, but the fresh, lively and joyful qualities of this music were in abundance. For this concert four members of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra formed a chamber ensemble comprised of Elizabeth Blumenstock on violin, Stephen Schultz on flute, William Skeen on viola da gamba, and Jory Vinikour on harpsichord. The music was from the six Nouveaux quatuors published during Telemann’s eight-month stay in Paris from September 1737 to May 1738. During this visit to Paris Telemann appeared at both the court of Louis XV at Versailles and at Paris’s prestigious Concert Spirituel series. His Nouveaux quatuors made a big hit with Parisian audiences who appreciated Telemann’s “united style” or goût reuni, which combined elements of Italian style, (derived from Vivaldi, who was all the rage), and the French and German styles.  

This program’s opening work, Telemann’s Premier Quatuor in D Major, featured concerto-like solos for each of the three melody instruments. Next on the program was Telemann’s Premiere Suite in E minor, which features much give-and-take among the instruments, especially during the fourth movement marked Replique. The following work, Sonata prima in A Major, features two fast fugal movements with interludes offering the three melody instruments as soloists. Closing out the program was Telemann’s Sixième Quatuor in E minor, which once again offered the flute, violin, and viola da gamba ample opportunities for solos. Altogether, this concert was most remarkable for the virtuosic flute-playing of Stephen Schultz, one of the world’s leading artists on Baroque flute. 

Thursday evening’s concert at First Congregational Church featured the instrumental ensemble Voices of Music headed by Hanneke von Proosdij and David Tayler, as well as the San Francisco Girls Chorus. Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas was given a semi-staged performance in the second half of the evening’s program, while the first half was devoted mostly to works by Vivaldi. Opening the concert was Vivaldi’s Concerto for strings in G Major “alla Rustica.” This lively work flew by with three brief movements, the middle one being a lushly melodic Adagio. Next came Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major “fatto per la Solennità della S. Lingua di S. Antonio in Padova.” This work is essentially a violin concerto, and here the soloist was Alana Youssefian on Baroque violin. The opening movement, an Allegro, offered three different solo opportunities for Alana Youssefian, who executed them brilliantly. The third of these solos was especially scintillating. The second movement, marked Grave, was plaintive in mood, while the third and final movement was another scintillating Allegro, and here Alana Youssefian had to take her Baroque violin up to the very top of its capabilities yet make these extreme high notes audible. To her credit, she met this challenge smartly, then completed her solo with descending scales. For a change of pace, Valérie Sainte-Agathe came on stage to conduct the San Francisco Girls Chorus in Nunc dimittis, a brief choral work by Nicola Porpora (1686-1768), followed by Antonio Vivaldi’s choral motet Laetatus sum.  

After intermission Hanneke von Proosdij conducted from the harpsichord in a semi-staged presentataion of Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. This opera, which most likely premiered around 1689 at Josias Priest’s boarding school for girls in London, followed the model of Venus and Adonis by Purcell’s mentor, John Blow. For our performance in Berkeley Hanneke von Proosdij and David Tayler followed what must have been the precedent set at the premiere of Dido and Aeneas, which involved casting all the female roles from among the young females at Josias Priest’s boarding school for girls. Thus, here in Berkeley the roles – with the exception of the major roles of Dido and Aeneas – were allocated to members of The San Francisco Girls Chorus. For the most part – with one glaring exception – this allocation of roles worked out excellently.  

I’ll deal with the exception a bit later on. However, as Dido, queen of Carthage, adult professional singers mezzo-soprano Mindy Ella Chu gave a capable though hardly exciting performance, and as Aeneas baritone Jesse Blumberg was superb. The libretto by Nahum Tate recounts Queen Dido’s initial resistance to the amorous suit of Aeneas, Prince of the Trojans, who escaped the fall of Troy at the hands of the Greeks. With encouragement from her lady-in-waiting, Belinda, excellently sung here by soprano Emma Powell, Dido eventually gives in to the strong attraction she feels for Aeneas, and the lovers are betrothed. Hardly do they have one night together, however, than a conspiracy is plotted by a local sorceress and her coven of witches, who prevail upon Jove (Jupiter) to order that Aeneas set sail immediately to leave Carthage and fulfill his destiny of founding Rome. My major problem with the casting was the voice of Calla Kra-Caskey as the sorceress. Listed in the program notes as an alto in the San Francisco Girls Chorus, Calla Kra-Caskey bleated her lines in a voice that sounded more like a whiney American teenager than a Mediterranean or North African sorceress. I had to wince every time she sang. Perhaps in another role her voice would work well, but here it was simply strident and out of place. She sounded like an escapee from the Broadway musical Annie, not a compliment in my opinion.  

The final meeting between Dido and Aeneas was beautifully sung, as Aeneas offered to ignore Jove’s orders that he must depart and remain in Carthage because of his love for Dido. However, Dido takes umbrage at his opening words that he must depart, and so she rejects his ardently repeated offers to stay. “Away, away?” she cries. But Dido adds that when Aeneas is gone, her life will be over. Aeneas and his Trojans set sail and leave, and Dido, on the brink of committing suicide, addresses to Belinda her famous aria, “When I am laid in earth.” In a performance as Dido that was otherwise a bit underwhelming, Mindy Ella Chu rose to the occasion in this well-loved final aria, and her famous closing words – “Remember me, but, ah, forget my fate” -- were movingly delivered.