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Stimulating Bach – and others – from the Wellington Baroque Ensemble

By , 01/10/2011

CAFFEINE AND CONTROVERSY

Music by Vivaldi, Handel, Hellendaal and J.S.Bach

Amelia Ryman (soprano) / James Adams (tenor) / Roger Wilson (baritone)

Anna Newth (flute)

Wellington Baroque Ensemble

Martin Ryman (director)

Gregory Squire (leader)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Saturday 1st October, 2011

As they say in the classics (and these pieces of music were themselves, for the most part “classics”), a happy occasion, brought about by skilled performances and innovative presentation of some extremely felicitous music – the reception given to the performers, both singers and instrumentalists, bore out the evening’s enjoyment and pleasure.

In the “old days” this event might have been styled merely as a “Baroque Concert”, from which the prospective listener would take what she or he would – very likely featuring Vivaldi, Handel and J.S.Bach, as here (though Pieter Hellendaal’s name would almost certainly have caused head-scratching among the punters). However, there’s a new presentation spirit coursing through the veins of classical music promoters these days, and the epithet “Caffeine and Controversy” seemed to promise the kind of titillation one might get from any reputable (or disreputable) “show and tell” publication.

I’m all for this kind of thing, with the proviso that the flash doesn’t get in the way of the substance, and is thus kept obligatory – in other words, at the end of the day it’s the music that is seen to provide the real thrills, rather than the accoutrements (unlike the case with many performances of opera one witnesses in this day and age, either filmed or “live”, well-and-truly subverted by ego-ridden directors).

Not that the first half of this concert had much to do with anything other than the music that was being played, to one’s relief – although Handel was certainly something of a controversial figure, Vivaldi was rather less so (despite what might seem to male sensibilities the latter’s good fortune in working at a so-called orphanage for young women), but around and about the Dutch-born, English-domiciled Pieter Hellendaal (whom I had never heard of, to my shame) there seemed nary a trace of trouble or scandal.

It was that pillar of the music establishment of the Western World, Johann Sebastian “Mighty Bach” (as Dylan Thomas once called him) who provided the “ginger” which enlivened the concert’s second half, in the form of the well-known “Coffee Cantata”. This work was possibly a semi-autobiographical treatise on the part of the composer about interactions between older and younger generations, the catalyst here being (in Bach’s case) a contemporary craze for coffee-drinking. Bach’s librettist was Christian Friedrich Henrici (better known as Picander, the author of many of the composer’s texts, including those for the St Matthew Passion and the Christmas Oratorio), though it’s thought that Bach himself added the words for the work’s final trio – sentiments which any parent will empathize with in a general sense!

So, a well-constructed program began with Vivaldi’s “Goldfinch” concerto for flute and strings – Anna Newth was a skilled and long-breathed soloist, coping with some of the composer’s more demanding extended utterances with flying colours, and readily conveying both pictorial and stylistic aspects of the work. Though her musical interaction with the group was splendid throughout, I was distracted by her placement slightly “away” from the half-circle of musicians so that the ‘cellist (the excellent Katrin Eickhorst-Squire) had to constantly turn around in her seat to make contact with her (if she’d stood in the middle, out the front, there would have been no problem). I found also that both harpsichord and viola, though beautifully played by Martin Ryman and Leoni Wittchow, respectively, seemed to take the concept of “tasteful accompaniment” to extremes, so that they were in danger of being inaudible at times – though a concerto, I wanted the supporting lines to have their proper say, as well!

Each of three singers then gave us a well-known aria from Handel’s different oratorios. Amelia Ryman’s bright, agile, soubrette-like voice readily and characterfully conveyed a young girl’s excitement at her impending marriage, with “Oh, had I Jubal’s lyre” from “Joshua”. A telling contrast was made by James Adams’ heartfelt and true-toned “Waft her, Angels, through the skies”, the diction beautiful and the phrasings naturally and easefully unfolded (a slight shortness of breath at “forever reign” forgiven amid the rapt loveliness of the reprise).

Roger Wilson seemed in excellent voice throughout his clarion-like traversal of “Revenge, Timotheus cries” from “Alexander’s Feast”, the singer particularly relishing the horrors of the “Furies” with their reptilian hairstyles. Perhaps the coloratura figurations of “and the sparkles” creaked and groaned a little, first time through (they flowed more easily during the reprise), but the energy and excitement carried the day. As for the ghostly middle section, Wilson’s sepulchral tones conjured up real pathos at the evocation of the ghosts of unburied warriors haunting the plain on which their remains still lay. Appropriately grey, sombre string-playing most vividly underlined the scenario.

Vivaldi’s Op.3 No.4 Concerto for four violins enabled us to enjoy the contrasting tones of the instrumentalists, each projecting a differently-characterised kind of sound, though often playing in pairs, an antiphonally delightful effect. Again, I thought the harpsichord sound self-effacing to a fault, beautifully played though everything was, minimizing a dimension of baroque interaction which I’m certain the composer would have wanted to be heard.

Pieter Hellendaal’s Op.3 No.2 Concerto Grosso made quite a dramatic effect, dark and stormy at the beginning, setting a grave, strong-chorded opening against an energetic allegro. I enjoyed the bird-song carolling during the Affettuoso; and if the Presto had a slightly shaky beginning here, its reprise after a “mirror-image” episode had a more confident trajectory. The concluding “Borea”, a sturdy, but still lively dance in what sounded like 4/4 time cooled the passions and most tastefully restored equilibriums.

I liked the way the second half’s beginning was activated, with the musicians moving to the side of the platform and tuning up somewhat curmudgeonly, as both stage and auditorium got their respective selves prepared for the music’s commencement. Before we realized what was happening, James Adams (a kind of servant/retainer) was admonishing us to be silent, duly announcing the arrival of the master, Herr Schlendrian “growling like a honey-bear”, and his charmingly willful daughter, Lieschen. Roger Wilson’s Herr Schlendrian (translated variously as “Humbug” and “Jogtrot”) grumped away entertainingly, with wonderful ‘cello-and double-bass (Malcolm Struthers) playing in tow, while Amelia Ryman’s Lieschen was enchanting of both voice and manner, deliciously aggravating her father’s obvious frustrations. Despite a slight stumble at one point in the reprise, Ryman’s forthright and open singing of “Haute noch” was for me one of the evening’s many highlights.

Costumes and staging helped bring Bach’s and Picander’s mini-drama to life – Steven Anthony Wilding’s direction brought out the best of each of the singers’ obvious theatrical gifts, despite one or two places where the music’s distinctly undramatic progressions caused a hiatus or two – conversely the trio’s coming together for the final cadence had a slightly hair-raising “just-made-it” quality.

But these were minor quibbles when set against the whole – a rattlingly good evening’s musical entertainment, with great credit to all concerned.

 

 

 

 

 

One Response to “Stimulating Bach – and others – from the Wellington Baroque Ensemble”

  1. Lynsey says:

    I do not attend concerts regularly.

    When I do, I expect much the same as I would from a meal – tasty appetizers, an interesting main course, and sweet desserts to follow. I expect a fusion of the fresh and familiar, with a little bit new and exotic, served with verve and confidence.

    I was expecting a treat – how often do opportunities for homegrown, carefully crafted, live, baroque music come along?

    ‘Caffeine and Controversy’ was such an opportunity. The Georgian styled interiors of St Andrews on the Terrace provided a beautifully intimate space and the acoustics are very good. Patrons were greeted at the door with a smiling welcome and we were not only provided with a fulsome programme, we received a packet of (fair trade) coffee to enjoy later. An amusing idea, and this subtle wit was to be found throughout the performances.

    The artistic direction of Steven Anthony Whiting was clear from the outset. The interplay of lighting, the musicians, and the props worked well. There would be no need for awkward changes later through the performances, and the asymmetry cocked an eyebrow at the Georgian symmetries.

    As the appetizers were served I was very pleased by how clearly I could hear the individual voices of the different instruments, ebbing and flowing with the soloists’ voices. The overall effect was a cohesive whole, with spicy moments of an individual flavor that blended back into the overall basso continuo richness. I expect that this is not just some magic or genius on the composer’s part – clearly, the musicians were demonstrating the exquisite control demanded by tasto solo.

    Before attending the concert I had wondered how these works would have been presented in the original context. I imagined quite cramped rooms – perhaps in the coffee houses themselves. We’re not so removed – performances in Wellington’s cafes are inevitably squeezed, and overly loud. I imagine that back in the day the musicians would’ve faced the same sorts of issues – and that this performance (harpsichord with closed lid etc) was a deliberate and authentic reflection of the period performance.

    The smoothness of the transitions, the way the harpsichord worked with the viola and cello (Ryman, Wittchow, and Eickhorst-Squire respectively) left me hankering for more analog music – I was reminded of the metallic aftertaste that comes from too much digital music.

    For me the high point of the first half was the Concerto Grosso Op. 3 No. 2 by Pieter Hellendaal. It remains unclear to me how one of Holland’s most creative sons has remained so obscure in the media-everything 21st century. It was a great opportunity to hear the work presented live.

    During the intermission I could overhear other patrons expressing their enjoyment of the appetizers. I thought it was tribute to the intimate space and the artistic direction; and perhaps recognition of the obviously comfortable relationship between the performers that allowed strangers to lean over the seats to talk to each other. Did I mention the terrific programme? It was fun to see patrons were perusing the pages and talking about the upcoming main course.

    The authenticity of the second half was enhanced by the ‘trades-musicians’ stomping in, and the head waiter – narrator (Adams) hushing us up with a bit of gossip – here comes some old grump and his spunky daughter … an elderly couple sitting in front of me were giggling like teenagers from the get go. I’m not going to dissect the balance of the performances other than to say that the main course was superb – the Ensemble was more than equal to the task – polished and professional. The costuming and staging worked well – I’m glad the art direction avoided any temptation of using ‘punked-up’ clichés. The audience remained engaged, following along with a certain Schadenfreude as they watched sweet, innocent Lieschen run rings around Schlendrian. Let’s face it, fatherhood can be hell.

    The sweet dessert? Knowing that the concert was performed by a fusion of experienced professionals, and fresh musicians just beginning their creative journeys. You can only learn so much of a creative art in isolation. At some point you have to exhibit – to front up and strut your stuff. I believe it was the blend of experience levels that gave the concert a picante edginess that would be easy to lose if the performers had done it 50 times before. Opportunities to work with experienced performers in any field are rare and precious, and Celia Music and the sponsors are to be complimented for their participation.

    ‘Caffeine and Controversy’ was not some crusty canker growing on some musicologist’s dusty shelf, nor was it some academic work reeking of disinfectant. What we were presented with was an extremely well considered, well rounded menu with works that were familiar enough to be accessible paired with less common pieces.

    I left, clutching my coffee, feeling well satisfied.

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