Steven Fox Leads Juilliard415 and Clarion Society in Exceptional Baroque Concert

United StatesUnited States Corelli, Handel, Bach: Nanae Iwata (violin), Julia Bullock, Heather Engebretson, Ying Fang (sopranos), Rachel Wilson (mezzo-soprano), Spencer Lang (tenor), Davone Tines (bass-baritone), Juilliard415, The Clarion Choir, Steven Fox (conductor), Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 23.3.2012 (SSM)

Corelli: Concerto Grosso in D major, Op. 6, No. 4
Handel: Silete venti: Motet for Soprano and Orchestra, HWV 242
Bach: Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041
Magnificat in D major, BWV 243

Steven Fox, Clarion Chorus, Juilliard 415- Photo: John Squire


The conductor Riccardo Muti has over the last ten years performed and recorded concerts that have been universally praised. Credit is always given to the conductor, but equal or greater accolades are given to his two orchestras. What is so exceptional about these orchestras is that all the members are handpicked by Maestro Muti. Every conductor is involved in the hiring of new orchestral members, but few are able to hire more than replacements for the usual turnover of staff.

Likewise, the students in the Juilliard School’s Historical Performance Department, while not selected by a particular conductor for an orchestra, have been admitted only if they excel. There are just a handful of equivalent early music departments in universities and getting accepted by Juilliard defines you as a soloist placed among an orchestra of soloists. The Department is only in its third year but Juilliard415 can truly be considered among the top professional Baroque orchestras of the day.

These students also have been exposed to master classes and conductors who are the most prestigious in the world. They have had to deal with each teacher’s individual personality, had to unlearn and learn again what each conductor demands of his or her own orchestra. As Monica Huggett, Artistic Director of the program has stated, “How many musicians in history have under their belts French, Italian and German styles. These students might be asked to play any one or all of these styles on any given school day.”

Steven Fox had his turn with this orchestra and the group responded with sparkle. Choosing one of the bedrocks of Baroque music from Corelli’s Opus 6, Fox was pulled in by the work’s rhythmic pulse. This concerto gave the violinist Samuel Park, in the concertino sections of the piece, the material for a short but spirited demonstration of virtuosity, on par with any that I’ve heard in this work

In Rome at the turn of the 18th century, Handel had connected with Corelli, whose concerto grossi were a major influence on his own cycles of concerti grossi (Opus 3 and 6). One might think that the unusual motet chosen as the next piece on the program, Silete venti, was from this period. In style it is reminiscent of the series of cantatas Handel wrote for the religious leaders of Rome in 1706-1707, but current scholarship puts it much later, in the mid 1720’s. While the cantatas are decidedly secular, this motet is considered to be a piece that could be performed in a church; but even a quick reading of the text reveals that taking out one word (Jesus) would convert it into a secular motet.

Ying Fang had a lovely voice, warmer than many sopranos who sing Baroque arias, but for a work of this nature the song and the singer were a good match. Steven Fox and the orchestra kept back when she was up front. Kristin Olson whose oboe seemed to be ever-present added much color to the orchestral palette.

Nanae Iwata is to be commended for her determination to present a decidedly personal vision of Bach’s A minor violin concerto. At no point did she cede her soft sound for the sake of virtuosity. At times a tad behind the orchestra, she maintained a steady, confident and self-effacing technique. The lush second movement, usually a showcase of vibrato, here sounded even more poignant without it.  At one point towards the end of the final movement, I had a momentary sense of transcendence when everyone was just perfectly in accord.

There was no question of holding back for Bach’s Magnificat. Fox conducted most of the more rhythmic movements off the ground. The “Et exultavit spiritus meus” sung by Julia Bullock was strong and vibrant. Heather Engebretson’s “Quia respexit humiltatem” smoothly segued into the always surprising “Omnes generationes” from the Chorus. Both Spencer Lang and Davone Tines gave resonant readings of their respective arias. “Esurientes implevit bonis” might have benefited from a slightly lighter voice than Rachel Wilson’s, particularly against the two lilting flutes. The chorus was sharp, clear and responsive to Fox’s every gesture.

Of the three performances of the Magnificat that I’ve seen this season, this was the most compelling. It would be hard to resist any concert that showed such enthusiasm, energy and freshness from all involved.

Stan Metzger