Early Music, Autumn and Winter, in New York City: Australia Comes to Juilliard, Messiah at St. Thomas’, Boccherini, etc.

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Les Hémisphères réunis at  St. Luke's in the Fields: Jude Ziliak, Matthew Greco, James, Eccles, Anthony Albrecht, Pippa Macmillan, Skye McIntosh, and Marc Destrubé. Photo © 2014 Michael Miller.

Les Hémisphères réunis at St. Luke’s in the Fields: Jude Ziliak, Matthew Greco, James, Eccles, Anthony Albrecht, Pippa Macmillan, Skye McIntosh, and Marc Destrubé. Photo © 2014 Michael Miller.

Les hémisphères réunis – The hemispheres reunited
St. Luke in the Fields Church
Friday January 17 at 7pm

Jean-Philippe Rameau – Cinquième concert en sextuor en ré mineur
Joseph Haydn – Concerto for Violin in G Hob.VIIa:4
Soloist Marc Destrubé
Luigi Boccherini – String Quintet in D major, Op.39/3
Felix Mendelssohn – Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20

Musicians from the Australian Haydn Quartet and Juilliard’s Historical Performance Program
Marc Destrubé, leader

In the past, New York has seemed rather impoverished in historically informed concerts, especially in comparison to Boston, which, with the Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) and several mature period orchestras and chamber groups, is truly the center of the movement in North America, although if you were attentive and looked around, you could find some rewarding events in churches and even Zankel Hall. In the past two or three years, however, early music in New York  has grown explosively. The primary reason for this is easy enough to find, the founding of the Historical Performance Program at Juilliard under the direction of the irresistible Monica Huggett in the fall of 2009 and since 2012 under that of Robert Mealy (also Orchestra Director of the BEMF Orchestra). By now the first crop of students is on the loose in the city, and they are dangerous!

In truth they’ve accomplished great things right from the start. Beginning with Juilliard’s own period band Juilliard415, which is now performing at the school and elsewhere with increasing frequency, I’ve heard other outstanding new groups, like New York Baroque, Inc., with admiration and pleasure around the City. James Richman’s now venerable Concert Royal (founded in 1974) made a distinguished appearance at St. Thomas’ Church in its seasonal Messiah.

I’ll begin with a splendid concert which spanned the Baroque and Romanticism, bringing together the Australian Haydn Quartet, who are in New York for a brief residency, and young Juilliard musicians, as well as the outstanding violinist, Marc Destrubé from Quebec. In this way the Southern and Northern hemispheres came together, for a “one-off” event. How did this happen? The AHQ met Marc Destrubé at the Banff Arts Centre, where they were doing a winter residency in February 2013. The other magnets for early music, Vancouver Early Music and BEMF. are also charted territory for them. The cellist of the AHQ, Anthony Albrecht, is studying for a master’s in historical performance at Juilliard…the human ingredients and the opportunity fell together in New York, and it happened—announced by a notice that made the rounds on Facebook about a week before the concert. When I read Robert Mealy’s warm recommendation of the concert, I knew I had to be there—in the remarkable acoustic of the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, which is warm, present, clear, and richly reverberant all at once.

The concert opened with an anonymous contemporary transcription of suites by Rameau, which he originally wrote for harpsichord. This fifth suite, includes character pieces named after the two great gambists, Antoine Forqueray and Marin Marais, and the violinist Jean-Baptiste de Cupis de Camargo. The harpsichord often included in the ensembles that play these pieces was omitted. With Marc Destrubé playing first violin, the strings filled the hall with their warm, buttery sound by themselves, inviting us into the particular mood and color of each movement. Intonation and ensemble were immaculate, with the group playing in inner harmony together out of unanimity, rather than placing their attacks mechanically on a strict beat. This showed a highly developed awareness of French Baroque style, and gave the musicians freedom to delve into the particularized sensibility which give these works their poetic character.

In their treatment of the Haydn violin concerto Destrubé acted as both leader of the group, and, ever so discreetly, soloist. he was not standing out in front of the players, larger than life, as modern virtuosi play this and other violin concerti of the period, especially Mozart’s, but he wove his line subtly in and out of the body of strings. Along with the luxuriant but not exaggerated warmth of the tutti, one could hear every individual line, and savor the color and manner of the individual players. Mr. Albrecht and the double-bass player, Pippa Macmillan (who made a brave impression in a double-bass concerto by Johannes Matthias Sperger with Juilliard415 back in December) contributed some nice details in the lower lines, playing closely in concert with precise, elegant articulation and subtly pungent attacks. Above all one can’t sufficiently praise the restraint and taste of Marc Destrubé’s playing in his double role as leader and soloist.

Even today, you will read and hear critics complaining about the “scratchy, thin” sound of period strings. This concert would have taught them a lesson.

Sarasa’s BEMF concert at the Morgan Library convinced me that Boccherini must be the must underestimated composer of the eighteenth century (although he has plenty of company), but more of that below. It will suffice here to say that any work of Boccherini on a program is most welcome. His music is rigorous, elegant, beautiful, and often moving, especially in his religious music. This quintet was all of that, with pastoral sections and a hurdy-gurdy drone in the last movement. Here, the players balanced courtly polish and rustic earthiness in their playing of the drone passages and their appreciation of the honest simplicity of the melodic lines. Apart from that, it is interesting how Boccherini, in his quick movements, builds up his thematic material from short phrases in the manner of Haydn and Beethoven and uses longer lyrical tunes in his slow movements.

The last work, Mendelssohn’s famous Octet for Strings, was for me a revelation, believe it or not. It’s the sort of work that is often referred to as “beloved,” but I’ve generally had a “Bah! Humbug!” reaction to it. Played with steel strings, it seems a bit relentless—undifferentiated in dynamics, texture, and mood. In this performance the young musicians were able to create of world of varying tone and harmony with their period instruments. Jude Ziliak led the group. His centered attitude towards the music and his controlled, but warm statements of the leading themes emphasized the work’s structure and rhetoric in a most welcome way, adding some counterweight to its feverish pace. The ensemble made the score blossom with their clear lines and articulate phrasing.

So this memorable concert was not only a reunion of hemispheres, but a felicitous blending of superbly played period strings and the unusual and exceptionally beautiful acoustics of St. Luke’s in the Fields. And one can only hope that these brilliant young musicians will reunite again, above all at BEMF 2015 and hopefully sooner.

While I regret missing Andrew Manze’s with the New York Philharmonic, I decided to go to St. Thomas, because of my admiration for John Scott, Organist and Director of Music of Saint Thomas. (His brilliant interpretation of Bach’s Clavierübung, Book III, held an audience—mostly consisting of professionals—rapt at BEMF last June.)

I was very happy to hear Handel’s magnum opus so magnificently performed, and at St. Thomas’ Church, for which I have a special attachment, but the whole question of the true nature of the oratorio and its appropriate context couldn’t help coming to mind. Mr Scott himself invited us to consider this in his excellent program essay. Handel wrote Messiah for performance in a concert hall, not a church, as a lenten surrogate for opera, more precisely, opera which had grown tedious for its original aristocratic patrons. For all those who found it objectionable to present the birth, life, and crucifixion of Jesus Christ in concert hall, there probably have been those who objected to a work of such operatic character in church. Further objections to Messiah have been raised in academic, journalistic, and other politically correct circles, but they’re not really worth discussing by people of common sense. It remains that Messiah remains an uplifting experience for so many of us, and an outstanding performance is as welcome in the concert hall as in church. Most of us will stand for the Hallelujah Chorus, and we’ll feel very happy about it. For all its secular style and elegance, Messiah remains a devotional work, and I like to think about an anecdote about Sir Malcolm Sargent, a great conductor sadly underestimated in his waning years and afterwards, who, not a particularly religious man himself, once found the expressiveness of one of his soloists wanting. He asked her if she believed in what she was singing. Upon her negative response he advised her to avoid that repertoire and pursue another line of work.

Today these questions boil down to the general atmosphere of a Christmas performance at a major New York church, which brings together a great many people who aren’t used to being in church with a great many people who are not accustomed to attending classical concerts. People brought clients, children, and dates, which meant that there was a fair bit of chatting, canoodling, family activity, and mystification at the length of the holiday ritual they had undertaken. Should these people make a better effort to show more consideration to their neighbors who want to hear the music, or should they just relax and do as they will, as eighteenth century audiences are rumored to have done. The first is not beyond the possible, perhaps, while the second might provide a mean, where both the holiday punters and the people who want to savor the details of an exceptionally refined performance might feel more relaxed and accepting. I rather doubt it.

Handel wrote Messiah for performance in a concert hall, not a church, as a lenten surrogate for opera, more precisely, opera which had grown tedious for its original aristocratic patrons. For all those who found it objectionable to present the birth, life, and crucifixion of Jesus Christ in concert hall, there probably have been those who objected to a work of such operatic character in church. Further objections to Messiah have been raised in politically correct academic and journalistic circles, but they’re not really worth discussing by people of common sense. It remains that Messiah remains an uplifting experience for so many of us, and an outstanding performance is as welcome in the concert hall as in church. Most of us will stand for the Hallelujah Chorus, and we’ll feel very happy about it.

This performance was indeed worth savoring in every detail. John Scott produced light textures and lithe rhythms from the Gentlemen of the Choir and the orchestra and based his interpretations on strong contrasts in tempo. The faster sections were lively, and all the better for the clean articulation of speech and musical phrases by the boys and men. The slower, darker sections were very broad, with no attempt to trivialize the weight of the words that were sung. Scott made the most of tempo changes, pauses, and dynamics to articulate the structure of the more elaborate numbers, for example the fugal choruses and above all the Hallelujah Chorus, which came to an exceptionally powerful climax as a result. Another fundamental was the quality of the solo singing. All the soloists contributed work of the very highest caliber. Amanda Forsythe, who I have praised often in my reviews of her Boston appearances, was at her very best—and truly splendid. Christopher Ainslie sang the parts originally written for female alto with a resplendent silvery sound, intense expression, flexibility, and precision. Dann Coakwell contributed his nicely balanced tenor, and Jason Hardy proved a rich and powerful bass, entirely equal to the grand music Handel wrote for him.

Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys sang with the precision of pitch and articulation for which they are renowned, but went much further. While speaking the text, as an ensemble, with the clarity and expression of an outstanding actor, they brought feeling to it as well, and of course their precision in musical articulation is unsurpassed.

Before that, I heard a splendid concert with Juilliard415, which I have already mentioned in reference to Pippa Macmillan’s virtuosic performance of a Sperger double-bass concerto. The energy, intelligence, and sheer ability of this new orchestra is astounding, and it is addictive. New Yorkers hungry for an outstanding period band no longer have to wait for visitors from Europe, San Francisco, Cleveland, or Boston. Monica Huggett, the founder of both the program and the orchestra1, has created a marvel in just a few years. The second half of the program consisted of a large-scale, ambitious performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony, The engagement of all the players, already capable of playing at a very high technical level, was total, and, best of all, Huggett was constantly encouraging them to take risks, to push their skills to the limit. Even the most high-profile conductors of our time tend to condescend to the First, or at least deny it its full scope. I think most of us tend to take it for granted as a little classical symphony Beethoven wrote when he was just starting out. This performance made it clear just how ambitious he was in this work, and I could listen to it and ponder how Beethoven was reacting to the late masterpieces of Haydn. Beethoven went on to the culturally defining works of his own, but he never surpassed Haydn, nor has anyone else. Over a century later, we find Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Webern thumb wrestling with Haydn’s genius, not that Brahms would have been able to progress very far without his example. In any case, Juilliard415 were right on the money with their generous and expansive Beethoven First. It is a joy to have this splendid orchestra in the city, and I can’t think of any development of the past few years that has done so much to enrich our musical life.

An especially elevated and inspiring concert of all was the Sarasa Ensemble’s Boccherini program, which they played under the auspices of BEMF at the Morgan Library. The latish String Quartet in G major, Op. 52, No. 3, G. 234 of 1795 and the String Quintet in C minor, Op. 18, No. 1, G. 283 of 1774 established just how distinguished a composer Boccherini was, without blinding us with any of the associations which have accrued to the dreaded minuet from his Op. 11 No. 5. Above all, one is impressed with the solidity of Boccherini’s construction and the strength behind his gentle manners. And he was an imitator of no one, presenting a musical personality entirely different from that of Mozart or Haydn or J. C. Bach, for example. However, it was the deeply moving Stabat Mater, G. 532a of 1781 that actually revealed how substantial his music can be. Along with the poised, elegant writing for soprano voice and string accompaniment there is a sincere feeling, which allows us to engage in an intimate meditation of the sorrows of the Virgin, as she laments the crucifixion of her Son. I couldn’t help thinking back on Poulenc’s equally moving Stabat Mater, which was one of the high points of last year’s Tanglewood Festival. In fact Poulenc and Boccherini are akin in many ways, with their poise, technical care in composition, elegance, rusticity, and sincere inner feeling. The great soprano Dominique Labelle, who has a musical and expressive range beyond almost any living singer, was at her very best in this performance. The beauty of her voice, her shaping of melodic lines and ornaments, and her moving expressiveness brought us into a close relationship with this extraordinary work. There was also considerable power behind the clean, understated playing of the musicians of Sarasa, in this case Elizabeth Blumenstock and Christina Day Martinson, violins, Jenny Stirling, viola, Phoebe Carrai and Timothy Merton, cellos.

In the general course of operation, Sarasa, which was founded in 1997 by Timothy Merton, following a performance for inmates at Sing-Sing, draws from a pool of over seventy-five musicians worldwide. Their programming is among the most original, even daring, often combining neglected Baroque works played on period instruments with compatible contemporary works, including new commissions. Their inspired outreach program includes concerts and educational sessions with incarcerated teenagers. The name Sarasa is derived from a combination of Saraswathi, the Hindu goddess of art and culture, and the poetic Sanskrit word rasa, denoting the essence of sound.

New York Baroque Incorporated, founded in 2011, is a group of young musicians playing Baroque instruments. I heard them at le poisson rouge in a program consisting mostly of Italian music, especially Vivaldi, Biber, and a rediscovered flute concerto by G. B. Ferrandini, which was played by featured artist Emi Ferguson, a brilliant and exceptionally versatile musician who is a virtuoso on all manner of flutes and repertory, from the Baroque to the present. She gave an intense reading of the work, fully realizing its highly dramatic and expressive parlando style, with robust support from the ensemble.

The orchestra’s intonation was excellent and their ensemble was strong…in the Baroque style.The acoustics of le poisson rouge were fine, and one can only look forward to more at this excellent establishment, where the audience and the servers are usually quieter than the population of Carnegie Hall or the Y, and certainly more than the Yuletide crowd at St. Thomas’.

It is a joy to report that early music is alive, well, and prolific in New York City, and, even better, young.

  1. She is now artistic advisor, since Robert Mealy took over as Director in 2012.
About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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