Philharmonia Baroque & Anne Sofie von Otter Offer Contemporary Works

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Wednesday March 13, 2019 - 02:17:00 PM

I It might seem at first glance a strange mix when Philharmonia Baroque presents a program of music by Handel along with contemporary music. Yet over the weekend of March 6-10, newly commissioned songs by American composer Caroline Shaw and short pieces by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt were offered side by side with works by George Frideric Handel and Henry Purcell. And strange to say, these disparate works spanning the centuries fit together extremely well at the concert I attended Saturday, March 9, at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church. 

Caroline Shaw, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, was commissioned in 2016 by Nicholas McGegan’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra to compose songs for this period instrument ensemble and the renowned Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Two of these songs, “Red, Red Rose” and “The Edge” were on the printed program for this concert, and a third, which will be premiered on Tuesday, March 12, at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, was announced here by Nicholas McGegan as a sneak preview. In these songs, Caroline Shaw emphasizes the tonal colors of period instruments, thereby creating an intriguing mix of Baroque and modern music. 

“Red, Red Rose,” which was commissioned in 2016, is set to a poem by Robert Burns; and here Caroline Shaw follows the metric structure of Burns’ poetry while affording Anne Sofie von Otter a luminous vocal line. There is also a lovely solo for oboe, beautifully performed here by Principal Oboist Marc Schachman. “The Edge,” written in 2017, continues as the second in what has now become a three-part song-cycle; and for “The Edge” Caroline Shaw asked contemporary Scottish poet Jacob Polley to write the text. The result is a lovely, almost impressionistic vision set to music that is surprisingly free-wheeling. Here too there is a lovely oboe solo, a free vocal line devoid of precise rhythms, and a climax marked by, in Shaw’s words, “wildly ecstatic, irregular arpeggios, like Corelli on Red Bull.” The third and final item in this song-cycle, whose title I didn’t catch as announced by McGegan, is set to a text by Shaw herself. Here, as in the other two songs, there is effective use of pizzicato from the strings, and the harpsichord stands out even more effectively, here played by Hanneke van Proosdij.  

Also in a contemporary vein were three brief works by Arvo Pärt. Here too, as in Caroline Shaw’s songs, contemporary music drew on older traditions. Arvo Pärt’s music has its roots in Medieval chant. Summa, written in 1978, was originally an a capella vocal work, which Pärt arranged for string orchestra around 1990. Here it was performed by Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, whose clarity of intonation on period instruments added to the transcendental quality of this music. There was also a “Lord’s Prayer”/”Vater Unser,” by Pärt, sung here by countertenor Daniel Moody. The third and final work by Arvo Pärt was Es sang vor langen jahren, set to a text by Clemens Brentano, and sung here as a duet by Daniel Moody and Anne Sofie von Otter.  

The contemporary works all came in the second half of this concert, while before intermission we were treated to music by Handel. Opening the program was the overture to Handel’s opera Partenope. Next came the aria “Ch’io Parta”?”Should I leave?” from Pärtenope, sung here by countertenor Daniel Moody. (As an aside, I note that in singing Handel’s music, Daniel Moody sported a sequined jacket that sparkled, while he donned a staid black jacket to sing Arvo Pärt’s music.) Daniel Moody may be short in stature, but he possesses a clarion falsetto. His “Ch’io parta?” was an impassioned lament of a broken-hearted lover. There followed the aria “Will the sun forget to streak” from Handel’s Solomon, exquisitely sung here by Anne Sofie von Otter. Then came the aria Furibondo spira il vento/The wind blows furiously from Handel’s Partenope, sung here by Daniel Moody as a virtuoso piece in which the violence of a windstorm mirrors the turbulence of an unhappy lover’s soul.  

The highlight of the first half of this program came as Anne Sofie von Otter launched into Juno’s angry aria “No more…Iris, hence away” from Handel’s Semele. In this aria, Juno, indignant at young Semele’s dalliance with her wavering husband, Jupiter, imperiously commands Iris, messenger of the gods, to fly to Somnus, god of sleep, and awaken the drowsy Somnus in order that he might cast his soporific spell on Semele. Anne Sofie von Otter navigated the coloratura of this aria brilliantly. Next came a duet featuring Daniel Moody and Anne Sofie von Otter, “Welcome as the dawn of the day,” from Handel’s Solomon. Here Anne Sofie von Otter was imperious as the Queen of Sheba, regally extending her hand to be kissed by a compliant, almost tentative, Solomon. A Concerto Grosso by Handel, Op. 3, No. 2, in B flat Major, which concluded the first half of the program, featured brilliant passagework for two violins, here performed by Lisa Weiss and Katherine Kyme. I should add that the second half of this concert closed with a lively instrumental Suite from The Fairy Queen by Henry Purcell.