Uncommon Handel: Surprisingly Rewarding

United StatesUnited States Handel: Handelfest 2014, Soloists and Chorus of the American Classical Orchestra, Thomas Crawford (Director), Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 19.3.2014 (SSM)

Concerto a due cori in B-flat major, HWV 332
Concerto a due cori in F major, HWV 333
Jubilate, HWV 279
Alceste, HWV 45

Soloists: Jubilate
Solange Merdinian
Amanda Crider
Timothy McDevitt
Joseph Beutel

Soloists: Alceste
Marguerite Krull: Calliope
Randall Bills: Hercules
Robert Balonek: Charon
Lindsey Jones, dancer: Alceste
Weaver Rhodes, dancer: Admetus

Cynthia Edwards, Stage Director
John Heginbotham, Choreographer
Maile Okamura, Costumer

Several years ago I reviewed a concert by a Baroque orchestra whose conductor was due back the following day to his military post. He had had only a few days leave to prepare and rehearse for this concert which included a challenging concerto by Johann Fasch for two horns. It was not a pleasant experience. This wasn’t simply a problem with intonation but with the soloists not being able to get the right notes from their horns. Perhaps with more rehearsal time both soloists and orchestra would have had a better chance of succeeding.

And perhaps not. We’ve come to accept that if a horn player is to be authentic he must use a natural horn. The issue of what the “correct” choices are to achieve perfect intonation in Baroque brass is a complicated, convoluted and controversial one. Many factors are involved: venting, bore size, use of hand stopping and embouchure to name just a few. Ultimately the question becomes which is more important, correct intonation or authenticity. As a critical listener, I find myself focusing nervously on the brass players, fearing the next note will go off to another octave to the detriment of the musical experience. At this concert the four players used natural horns with B-flat crooks and a combination of embouchure and hand-stopping to produce the required notes. [See note below] Given the fact that there were intonation problems from one or more horn players (not an unusual occurrence), I would have preferred the so called “Baroque” horn which is vented but not valved. The end result of more than fifty years of research into the issue of historical performance shouldn’t be to leave us sitting on the edge of our seats.

These two appealing concerti each consist of identical but opposing choirs: HWV 332 for two oboes and bassoons and HWV 333 for two horns, two oboes and bassoons. Borrowing from one’s own earlier works or from works by other composers was not at all unusual in the 18th century, and both concerti do borrow from other sources. The most obvious and familiar is a verbatim transcription in the B-flat piece of “And the glory of the Lord” from the Messiah; the third movement of the F-major concerto emulates the aria “Orribile lo scempio” from Vivaldi’s Tito Manlio.

The Jubilate HWV 279, a compilation of verses from the Psalms, was Handel’s first foray into music with an English text. Even in this early work he was borrowing his own music, some of it from his time in Rome. The natural trumpets included here were played skillfully and without intonation difficulties by John Thiessen and Carl Albach. The soloists, who are members of the choir, sang with varying quality, with baritone Timothy McDevitt standing out from the others.

The main course for the evening came after the intermission with an unexpectedly fine semi-staged (costumes and dancing but no stage settings) production of Handel’s Alceste, incidental music for a lost play by Tobias Smollett. There is much beautiful music here and much beautiful singing as well. In fact, everyone contributed to its success. The orchestra members lined up along the back stage were balanced and attuned to the singers and dancers upstage. The choreography, limited somewhat by the lack of space, was traditional ballet (as opposed to performance in the style of Baroque dancing). Lindsey Jones and Weaver Rhodes, animated the incidental sections, with Ms. Jones a stunning and ethereal Alceste. Marguerite Krull was superb as the goddess Calliope, handling the long melismas with grace and ease. Baritone Robert Balonek’s one aria, “Ye fleeting shades, I come,” was persuasive, polished and robust. The only weakness here was the demanding role given to tenor Randall Bills who never seemed totally comfortable in the upper ranges and was unsteady in some of the long vocal lines.

Clearly, everyone put much time and effort into making this production something substantial, and it was acknowledged by an appreciative and enthusiastic audience.

Stan Metzger

Horn player Alexandra Cook has kindly corrected my information on the horns used for this performance:[ed.]

The horns are pitched in F without the use of  “hand stopping” and are vented when applicable. FYI for future critiques!

2 thoughts on “Uncommon Handel: Surprisingly Rewarding”

  1. The horns are pitched in F without the use of “hand stopping” and are vented when applicable. FYI for future critiques!


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