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Battles, Canons, and Underground War

New York
Rose Theatre, Lincoln Centre (60th Street and Broadway)
12/19/2008 -  & Dec. 21, 2008
Heinrich von Biber: Battalia (Battle) for Strings and Continuo
Antonio Vivaldi; Sonata in D minor for Two Violins and Continuo “La Follia”, R. 68 – Concerto in G minor for Recorder, Oboe, Bassoon and Continuo, R. 107
Johann Pachelbel: Canon and Gigue in D major for Three Violins, and Continuo
George Frideric Handel: Six selections from Nine Arias for Soprano, Violin and Continuo
Georg Muffat: Passacaglia in G major for String Quintet and Continuo

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centre: Julianne Baird (Soprano), Kenneth Weiss (Harpsichord and Organ), Paul O’Dette (Lute) Yoon Kwon, Arnaud Sussmann, Ian Swensen (Violins), Lily Francis, Erin Keefe (Violin/Viola), David Kim, Paul Neubalier (Violas), Efe Baltacigil, Fred Sherry (Cellos), Kurt Muroni, Daxun Zhang (Double-basses), Matthias Maute (Recorder), Stephen Taylor (Oboe), Milan Turkovic (Bassoon)

My military strategy seemed faultless. In order to hear that most eccentric of all music, Biber’s Battalia, I would leave early, stroll through the lovely snow of Tompkins Park in the East Village, walk to the subway, and lazily saunter to the elegant Rose Theatre, relax and enjoy the show. The problem with military strategy, though, is that “things happen”. In this case, the New York subway system, which suddenly became Satanic.

Peacefully waiting for my electronic carriage, the station burst into a three-part symphony crazier than the Biber. Specifically, a barking asthmatic voice from the P.A. system telling us that the subway system would not go where it was supposed to go. I couldn’t make it out, but the voice barked something about leaving for Constantinople, via Turkmenistan and Vladivostok. The chorus to that discordant solo comprised hundreds of confused, angry, hissing, quarreling, cussing passengers, moving from side to side from one stationary train to another like annoyed red ants.

Above the voice and chorus was the instrumental solo: a Jamaican tin-pan soloist drowning out the others with a funky version of “Winter Wonderland”.

The result was that this war in the underground precluded hearing Biber’s battle, plunking me in Rose Theatre for the more sedate comfort of Vivaldi’s La Follia, followed by more comfort music by the best Baroque musicians in New York.

It was comfort, I guess, to hear that wonderful luthenist Paul O’Dette plucking notes against soprano Julianne Baird in a Handel aria. It was solace to hear the ubiquitous cellist Fred Sherry, fresh from an Elliott Carter weekend as part of the original ubiquitous Pachelbel Canon and Gigue. And hearing Matthias Maute playing the oft-maligned recorder, while leading two ensembles, was an unexpected joy.

The two centre pieces of the concert were based around Julianne Baird. Six Handel songs, with turgid texts by Bartold Heinrich Brockes, were assuaged by Handel’s addition of instruments to the voice. Their solos were wonderful, but most outstanding was “Sweet Stillness”, whose middle section had Ms. Baird singing against the plucked lute and cello for a most pastoral effect.

As for Ms. Baird, it was inevitable to compare her with the soloist in Ton Koopman’s Messiah two nights before. The latter had a lovely flutey voice, which was light, floating on air, almost ethereal. Julianne Baird would have none of that. Her voice could be that of a Wagnerian. It is rich, emotional, heavy when necessary, but with an almost Elizabethan lyricism in songs like the final “My soul hears”.

The two Vivaldi selections were delightful, the final jig of the recorder concerto pure joy. Even that prime example of “greatest hits”, Pachelbel’s Canon, played authentically with three violins and continuo of lute and cello, performed rather swiftly, sounded new, while the following Gigue seemed fairly canonic itself.

All of this in the comforts of Rose Theatre, with its super-acoustics, couldn’t make up for losing the one “bizarre” piece which justified the title: “Baroque Collection: The Beautiful And The Bizarre”. Never mind. The subway system might seem relatively normal this Sunday afternoon, so—as they say with battles and canons—I’ll give it another shot.

ERRATUM: As Mr. Rolnick explained in the beginning of his story, transportation problems precluded his hearing the first piece. Obviously that included an announcement of the change of singer. Since he had not heard Ms. Brewer before, he did not notice the difference. Obviously he regrets this rather serious mistake.

Harry Rolnick



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