Fully-staged production of Handel’s 1735 opera Alcina, performed in period costume, on period instruments, in a beautiful and intimate space. Be transformed by the thrilling music of Handel’s masterpiece up close and personal, as the sorceress Alcina attempts to seduce the knight Ruggiero.
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Eighteenth in our series of guest articles marking Early Music Month
By Benjamin K. Roe
Two years in, and twice the fun! On this final day of March, we’d like to offer a lion-sized salute to the more than 260 partners, (double the number from 2016!), presenting nearly 100 concerts and events across North America during the (take your pick) wintry, blustery, sunny, windy, cloudy, rainy, and possibly spring-like month of March, now a.k.a. Early Music Month.
March – birthdays of Baroque giants J.S. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, and Georg Philipp Telemann, as well as the “high season” of musical expressions of Lent and Easter – seemed as good a month as any to demonstrate just how much of a force Early Music has become in the larger music community – in our schools, our concert halls, among amateur and professional players alike, not to mention presenters, scholars, and even luthiers and artisans seeking to, as EMA says, “replicate, create, and understand the values and visions of an earlier era as expressed through its music and its instruments.”
Our final post of the month may illustrate just how large that larger music early music community has grown.
Sure, there have been performances a plenty in such Early Music hotspots as Boston, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Montreal, Washington, D.C., and Toronto, but how about Falmouth, (population 11,185), Maine?
Falmouth is home to St. Mary Schola, a professional early music band, made up of, – in their words – “northern New England’s finest singers and accompanying instrumentalists, devoted to the performance of masterworks from the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras.”
Tonight, SMS, based at St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church in Falmouth, presents the first of three concerts that illustrate the endless fascination and appeal of Early Music in modern times. It’s called “As Pants The Hart..” If you know your English hymns, you may recognize the verse:
As pants the hart for cooling streams
When heated in the chase,
So longs my soul, O God, for Thee,
And Thy refreshing grace.
This sturdy Anglican hymn has been set to music dozens of times, but none more thoroughly and famously than by a composer for whom English was a third language: none other than George Friedrich Handel, whom scholars have now figured out set “As Pants” (okay, it feels a little funny to write that) no fewer than five times.
Those five instances also help to trace Handel’s evolving role in society. In 1713, “As pants the hart” was the very first English-language anthem he set for Queen Anne, who had just rewarded him with an £200 annual pension (worth about $40K today) as a composer for the Chapel Royal. Four years later, with Anne gone and his fellow German George I on the throne, Handel blew up the humble Psalm 42 text into a full-blown 20 minute, seven-part composition, replete with an overture, arias, duos, trios, and a final glorious chorus.
That’s the version our friends in Maine will perform tonight at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, with subsequent concerts in Falmouth and Portland on April 2 and 4. On this evening, however, there will be a symmetrical opening: In addition to this timeless setting of Psalm 42, the concert will begin with Bach’s Cantata No. 42, Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats – “On the evening, however, of the same Sabbath.” And in between: A quartet of Renaissance heavyweights: Dufay, Palestrina, Orlando De Lassus, and Gesualdo. Viva Bach, Handel, and Early Music Month, as well as the final line of “As Pants The Hart’s…” final line: Thy health’s eternal spring!
Benjamin K. Roe is the Executive Director of the the Heifetz International Music Institute. Before joining the Heifetz Institute, Ben was the Managing Producer for Music and Performance at WGBH, Boston. He has also served as the General Manager of WDAV 89.9 FM in Davidson North Carolina and worked for 20 years at NPR, in Washington, DC, where he served in a variety of roles, including Director of Music and Music Initiatives. Ben currently serves as the Artistic Director of the “Music and Museum” series at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte, NC, and is a frequent guest lecturer, adjudicator, and pre-concert speaker.
Fourteenth in our series of guest articles marking Early Music Month
By Shulamit Kleinerman
Looking at this week’s dress rehearsal photos, I see all the things I love about Seattle Historical Arts for Kids (SHAK). There’s the one-room-schoolhouse mixing of ages and backgrounds, with each student making an individual stamp on the whole project. I see evidence of the artistry of SHAK’s devoted faculty and collaborator-contributors, not just in the costumes and sets but in the skills on display by the cast. There’s something really compelling for me, each time we do one of these performances, in seeing young people really bringing to life these beautiful images from the past. They’re not just wearing costumes but acting and moving in informed ways. The kids are very bright and engaged but they also really do the hard work—not just in rehearsals but in practicing at home—to absorb all the material we give them, and I’m so proud to see them shine.
Handel’s melodic genius made it an easy choice to return to the composer again this year after the fun and success we had with our adaptation of Alcina in 2014 and 2015. But when I’m choosing a work for SHAK, the opera’s plot has to pass a few tests too. It needs strong female characters and a premise more entertaining for kids than plain old love-and-duty fare. And it needs to avoid plots that hinge on colonial conquest or conversion.
So finding the right story for SHAK meant I had to read through a lot of plot synopses, with all their twists and turns. (The unexpected hurdle in my selection process was the impossibility of making sense of more than one or two synopses in a sitting before mental exhaustion set it!) Finally, Handel’s Serse came to the top of my list. The titular king is a tyrant, but his fiancée Amastre outwits him, coming to court in disguise as a man and forming an alliance with another woman, even drawing her sword to defend her against the unfaithful Serse’s unwanted advances.
The original Serse libretto dates from the late 17th century—an antique by the time Handel was working with it. In keeping with the pacing of 17th-century works, the composer wrote a lot of short musical numbers—many of them less than a minute. So there was a lot of accessible and delightful material for me to choose among to suit our young singers’ abilities and keep young audiences engaged.
This production marks a few firsts for SHAK. We’re in a beautiful venue that’s new for us and, with the Early Music Guild of Seattle, are offering two performances instead of just one. With two of our returning cast boys’ changed voices, we have tenor arias and three-part vocal harmony in all the choruses. And our older teen vocal soloist, a senior in high school, is singing not only the famous “Ombra mai fu” but also the virtuosic “Crude furie”—SHAK’s first rage aria!
Shulamit Kleinerman was the recipient of Early Music America’s 2015 Laurette Goldberg Award, given to honor ongoing achievement in educational outreach. In 2005, Shula began the series of children’s history day camps that evolved into Seattle Historical Arts for Kids. She received the national Outreach Award from EMA following the 2010 release of SHAK’s innovative studio CD, Merry It Is!. A former preschool teacher, she maintains a private violin teaching studio in North Seattle.
Specializing in the early “off-shoulder” playing position, Shula performs on the medieval vielle and renaissance and baroque violin. She was a founding member of the Elizabethan quartet Plaine & Easie, which won the 2009 EMA competition in medieval and renaissance music. Her solo CD was recorded during an artist residency at Jack Straw Productions. She has also performed with Utopia Early Music, Istanpitta, and The Christmas Revels in Houston, Portland OR, and Tacoma.
Shula has contributed program notes for presenters including the Berkeley Festival of Early Music and the Early Music Guild of Seattle. She has lectured on music history at the University of Utah, Seattle University, Seattle Baroque Orchestra, and Cornish College of the Arts.
EMA’s monthly featured member profile.
Founded in 1990, Musica Pacifica has become widely recognized as one of America’s premier baroque ensembles, lauded for both “dazzling virtuosity” and “warm expressiveness.” They have been described as “some of the finest baroque musicians in America” (American Record Guide) and “among the best in the world” (Alte Musik Aktuell). Based in the San Francisco Bay area, the artists perform with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and American Bach Soloists, as well as prominent early music ensembles worldwide. Musica Pacifica has performed on prestigious concert series throughout the U.S. Featured at the Berkeley Early Music Festival three times, their first appearance there was cited in Early Music (UK) as “perhaps the standout of the entire festival.” Their 2015 performance at the Boston Early Music Festival was reviewed as “sensational . . . astonishing . . . breath-taking throughout” by The Boston Musical Intelligencer. They have performed at festivals in Germany and Austria, and have been featured on German National Radio, Minnesota Public Radio, and National Public Radio’s “Performance Today” and “Harmonia.” Musica Pacifica’s nine CD releases on the Virgin Classics, Dorian, Solimar, and Navona labels have won national and international awards.
Musica Pacifica’s current line-up is Judith Linsenberg (recorder), Elizabeth Blumenstock (violin), Josh Lee (viola da gamba), and Charles Sherman (harpsichord.)
How did Musica Pacifica come together?
We met back in 1990 through Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in the Bay Area. The group had a slightly different make-up back then, including recorder (myself — Judith Linsenberg), violin (Elizabeth Blumenstock), oboe (Gonzalo Ruiz), bassoon (Marilyn Boenau), cello (Sarah Freiburg), and harpsichord (John Butt), but most of us were either regular, or at least occasional, members of the orchestra. We were looking for outlets to play chamber music, to complement the orchestral work for PBO and to challenge ourselves, and so got together originally to play the virtuosic chamber concertos of Vivaldi and Telemann (and Fasch) that used that sort of large and diverse instrumentation. Over our 26 years of playing together, the personnel has changed a bit — nowadays, our core group is just 4 of us (recorder, violin and continuo), with varying guest artists (some of whom are very regular guest artists) — but Elizabeth and I were founding members and are still going!
What is Musica Pacifica’s most memorable concert experience?
All the stars were lined up for us that night. Playing a Main Stage event at this festival was an honor for us, and we were excited to be there. We were playing our “Dancing in the Isles” program, one that we have been done for many years and with which we were extremely comfortable both as a group and individually. It was a joy to play with some of our colleagues from the east coast. The event was in Jordan Hall, possibly the finest chamber music hall in the the U.S. — it’s clear and resonant, and very easy to communicate on stage. Another attribute of that hall is that the audience is not far away, which intensifies their experience and allows the performer to feel their response. As this was BEMF, we had the best audience we could have hoped for: knowledgable, appreciative, and extremely enthusiastic. This show took place at 11 p.m., which lent a special mood — the audience who was there really wanted to be there, and apparently our joy and excitement were infectious.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned as an ensemble?
We’ve kept our ensemble going for 25 years, and in order to do this have had to learn how to get along with each other in what can sometimes be trying situations. This has occasionally been challenging — we are all passionate and energetic people with strong musical and personal convictions. We’ve learned to accommodate each others’ ideas as we work through musical issues in rehearsals and planning future programs. Touring, sometimes in less than ideal circumstances because of difficult travel and rehearsal schedules, can add to the stress. By now, we know each other very well, both personally and musically, and we’ve learned to be cognizant of each other’s foibles so we can give each other some slack when needed!
If Musica Pacifica was offered a surprise financial windfall, what project would you fund?
What a fun question! We have frequently heard, over the years, from audience members wishing we had CDs of our concert programs. So, if we received a windfall, we would use it to create high-quality video recordings of some of our most visually appealing programs. Our “Crossing the Channel” program, a collaboration with the estimable New York Baroque Dance Company, is beautiful to see and listen to. Our “Dancing in the Isles” program, featuring exuberant percussion and Celtic fiddling, also makes for happy viewing. A “state of the art” video would bring our performances to vivid life for many people all over the world who don’t have a chance to see us live, and encourage folks to bring us over to where they are!
What is next on the schedule for Musica Pacifica?
We’re excited about the upcoming release of our ninth release, and tenth actual CD, on October 14, 2016 on the Navona label: Mi Palpita Il Cor; Baroque Passions, with the amazing French-Canadian soprano Dominique Labelle. The CD features vocal and instrumental pieces from the mid- and late-Baroque, including cantatas by Steffani, Handel and Rameau, covering a wide range of passion, from pleasure and joy to pain, anguish and fury — along with a charming Paris Quartet by Telemann and a virtuosic trio sonata by Sammartini.
The Lives of George Frideric Handel. David Hunter.
Boydell and Brewer, 2015. 536 pages.
By Mark Kroll
BOOK REVIEW — Do we really need another biography of George Frideric Handel? This latest entry in the extensive literature about the iconic composer asks that very question on the book jacket, and answers it before you get to the title page: “To evaluate the familiar, even over-familiar, story of Handel’s life could be seen as a quixotic endeavor. How can there be anything new to say? David Hunter’s book seeks to distinguish fact from fiction, not only to produce a new biography but also to explore the concepts of biography and dissemination by using Handel’s life and lives as a case study.”
The Lives of George Frideric Handel more than accomplishes its goals. Well-written, richly documented, and colorfully presented, Hunter’s unique spin on what we know about Handel, or thought we knew, is a valuable addition to the early-music library.
You sense you are in for an exciting ride just by scanning the table of contents. Chapters such as “The Audience: Three Broad Categories, Three Gross Errors,” “Musicians and other Occupational Hazards,” and “Self and Health” are not standard fare in most musicological studies. Nor is Hunter’s description of his methodology in the preface: “Instead of a chronological sequence, the chapters enact a Möbius strip, by which, at the end, we have looked not only at what biographers have said about events but also at the biographers themselves. Handel’s life and lives and their story-tellers will be seen from new angles but as part of a continuous whole.”
Hunter does not disappoint. He deals with such issues as gender, religion, sexual orientation, “patrons and pensions,” musical performances, Handel’s finances, and his health, while at the same time taking on his fellow scribes with sections titled “When Biographers Fight” and “Plot Types and Biographical Story-Telling.”
For example, Hunter questions the long-held claim that Handel’s oratorios — Judas Maccabaeus, in particular — depended on the support of the Jews living in London at the time, asking: “Who were the Jews who attended performances of Handel’s works and subscribed to his publications? Did Jews think that Handel supported them? Was it only on commercial grounds that Handel was concerned about the absence of Jews from his audience, as one librettist reported? To what extent did the presence of Jews affect the way he and his librettists crafted their entertainments?”
Hunter’s answer is typically blunt and revealing. He begins by estimating that “perhaps twenty-six to thirty-nine families had the required wealth” to support Handel’s efforts, and adds further evidence that the influence of the Jews could not have been large, in any event, since performances of the oratorios in the 1740s were usually “on Wednesday and Friday nights. Not only would observant Jews be unwilling to attend on Friday evenings, they would also find Passover a trifle inconvenient!”
One of the more interesting sections deals in depth with the public rehearsal of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks at Vauxhall Gardens in April 1749 that 12,000 people reportedly attended. Hunter debunks this number from a variety of perspectives. One is the actual size of the Gardens, which he gives in feet, inches, and acres, concluding that they could not have physically accommodated so many people.
Another was the problem of transporting such a crowd from London to Vauxhall in time for the performance, citing what seems to have been the mother of all traffic jams, as Hunter colorfully describes: “On the day of the…rehearsal, a near three-hour stoppage on London Bridge was caused by the mass of coaches en route to Vauxhall.” It was, the Penny London Post noted, “a thing not known before in the Memory of Man.” Based on this and other evidence, Hunter convincingly estimates that not 12,000, but “approximately 3,000 people could have been accommodated in the vicinity of the rehearsal.”
Handel’s financial situation is covered in detail, including a section titled “Supposed Bankruptcy and Actual Wealth,” in which we learn that Handel profited greatly from his investments in the slave trade. Hunter also concludes that claims Handel “was the first musician to break free of elite patronage are bogus,” citing the fact that “Handel was cushioned from the dire consequences of the market turning against him thanks to the support of one of the richest families in the land: the Hanoverian monarchs.” As the author succinctly puts it, “The middle-class audience is a chimera.”
There is much more, including sections on Handel’s “Paralysis and Other Health Problems,” “Biographers’ Approaches to Corpulence and Gluttony,” and “An Eating Disorder Diagnosis,” which Hunter dubs “binge eating disorder.” He also believes there is not enough evidence on which to base a definitive conclusion about Handel’s supposed homosexuality.
Hunter concludes the book with an honest observation: “Every biographer has something to say but none, even this one, can have the last word.” This might be true, but the words in this book are well worth reading.
Mark Kroll, professor emeritus at Boston University, is a harpsichordist, fortepianist, scholar, and educator. His publications include editions of the music of Hummel, Geminiani, Avison, and Francesco Scarlatti, and books about the harpsichord, the Beethoven violin sonatas, and Ignaz Moscheles.