Juilliard415 at Tully Hall
Saturday November 20, 2010
Carl Heinrich Graun, Overture to Cleopatra e Cesare
Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto for Two Flutes in C Major, RV 533
George Frideric Handel, Cantata a tre Clori, Tirsi e Fileno
Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Deanna Breiwick and Lauren Snouffer, sopranos
Carla Jablonski, mezzo-soprano
Emi Ferguson and Christopher Matthews, flute
Charles Weaver, archlute
On the Saturday night before Thanksgiving, I found myself in New York with nothing on my agenda. Our hostess was planning to attend a concert that she described as being performed by students in the relatively new Juilliard graduate program in baroque performance, specifically the baroque orchestra Juilliard415, which performed its inaugural concert in December 2009. The Artistic Director is the Baroque violinist Monica Huggett. Without thinking of the event as review-worthy, I agreed to go to satisfy my curiosity about that program. I had heard about it in connection with some of its faculty members whom I had previously encountered at the summer Baroque Institute at Longy School. Once the music began, I quickly shed preconceptions about student concerts. This was a group of players to rival and in many ways surpass established historical-instrument ensembles. The level of young talent devoting itself to performing this music proved to be extraordinary. These student instrumentalists have been hand-picked and given full-tuition scholarships, and I failed to find any qualitative distinction between them and artists whom I would happily pay full ticket prices to listen to. The three vocal soloists were not members of this program but chosen from the pool of Juilliard vocal students, and were not part of an historical performance track. But here, the level of quality and performance savvy was if anything even more spectacular. This may have had something to do with the presiding early-music guru, Nicholas McGegan, who has been grooming all performers since August, and whose careful preparation showed in all quarters. But the tonal beauty, vocal skill, stylistic insight, and sheer intensity and commitment of the singing put many big names to shame.
The highlight of the program was the work that featured the three vocalists, Handel’s early secular cantata Clori, Tirsi e Fileno, composed in 1707 in Rome when Handel was a very mature twenty-two-year-old. The hour-long work concluded the smartly designed program, divided by the intermission. The preceding instrumental works showed off the ensemble, including horns, in Carl H. Graun’s overture to Cleopatra e Cesare. The energy and wit of the music made one curious to hear the whole opera, if only to compare it to Handel’s most famous opera on the same subject. The performers responded vividly to McGegan’s witty and pointed direction, with lively phrasing placing the grammatical accents in just the right places, and a variety of dynamics and articulation that always made complete sense out of the musical moment and overall form. Only the natural horns were less than reliable, betraying the student status of the performers on this most nerve-wracking of instruments. But then again, professional horn players make the same kind of errors all the time, and most of them have valves to help them find their notes.
Graun was followed by Vivaldi, a concerto for two flutes performed with assurance by Christopher Matthews and Emi Ferguson. Here, the shaping of the phrases was accompanied by rather visible body language from the soloists. It is sometimes the case that players of historical instruments are more relaxed and less restrained in their physical responses to the music they are playing than their more staid traditional colleagues, in keeping with the more relaxed nature of the sounds of early instruments. Such a visual display serves as a reminder that Vivaldi’s music is intensely dramatic, its idiom almost always closely connected with opera, so the dialogue of the soloists in this work was both aurally and visually intense.
In the main item on the program, the Handel cantata, the dramatic gestures and expressions of the performers provided all the visual material one needed to achieve the illusion of costumes, scenery, and formal staging. The singers accomplished the rest with their voices, and the level of musical accuracy and dramatic engagement never faltered. The “story” of this work is almost non-existent, an excuse for three characters to pass through all the emotions connected with the roller-coaster experience of love. Two shepherds, Tirsi and Fileno, sung by soprano Lauren Snouffer and mezzo Carla Jablonski, plead with the nymph Clori, soprano Deanna Breiwick, for fidelity, which she readily promises to each one, sometimes within the hearing of the other. Rather than fight over her, the two swains agree that you can’t expect logic or constancy in romance, and they resign themselves to sharing both Clori’s love and the pain that goes with it.
Handel sets this as a series of recitatives and da capo arias. Such dramatic vocal works used to cause trepidation at the prospect of hearing the same form over and over in an apparently endless series. But since Handel’s operas have entered the repertory of major houses, and especially since several generations of singers have taken this material as genuinely dramatic expression rather than simply the occasion for vocal display, we have been able to discover Handel’s enormous skill in the endless variety of strategies he used for expression, and even more, in his ability to create an over-arching variety and shapeliness for the entire experience. As the work proceeds, and especially in the second part heard after intermission, the style of the arias becomes increasingly diverse and marked by unique, unforgettable moments. Vocally, such a moment was supplied by Ms Snouffer in Tirsi’s angry accusation, “Tra le fere la fera più creda” (“Among all the beasts, no beast could be more cruel to me”). Here the coloratura fireworks of a battle aria with oboe obbligato were rendered with pin-point accuracy while remaining completely in character, rising eventually and logically to a high D delivered securely and powerfully without any interruption in the compelling momentum of the piece. The audience responded with the kind of ovation one hears for a favorite diva at the Met. (Personally, I preferred this performance to the Giulio Cesare that I saw there several seasons back.)
Other outstanding moments were Fileno’s aria in part 1, “Son come quell nocchiero…” (“I am like a sailor who after the storm…”) in which the usual pair of oboes are replaced by recorders; Clori’s over-the-top protestation of devotion to Tirsi “Barbaro! Tu non credi…?” (“Inhuman one! Do you not believe…?”) whose violin obbligato, superbly rendered by concert-mistress Adriane Post, constituted a mini-concerto movement; and as dessert, the adorable song “Come la rondinella dall’Egito” (“Just as the swallow…returns from Egypt to its old nest”) with its multitude of ritornelli and stunning obbligato played on the theorbo by Charles Weaver. It is as if, having presented every mood and musical gesture you can imagine, Handel keeps reaching into his magic hat and pulling out even more dazzling goodies that only he could have imagined. And the longer he does it, the more you wish he would never stop.
Nicholas McGegan knows this score very well and has recorded it; but by the beaming look that never left his face, he may have found this performance to have been the surpassing one. I would be happy to hear these “student” musicians in any repertory they take on. I particularly hope that these singers continue to turn their attention to the apparently endless treasure trove of Italian baroque vocal music that we are learning about. As we do so, we realize that it enjoys an aesthetic of its own, very different from Bach, full of color and eroticism that can be seen in Italian paintings of the period and heard in the music of Handel’s Italian predecessors like Alessandro Scarlatti. How Handel was able to absorb this tradition and then proceed to surpass it at the age of twenty-two seems miraculous. Hearing how musicians of a similar age can perform it with precision, passion, and deep stylistic insight makes it all seem more plausible. There is a great deal to be said for the wisdom of youth.