Boston Baroque opens 40th season with a modern top-spin on old forms

October 20, 2013 at 8:18 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Martin Pearlman

Boston Baroque opened its 40th season at Pickman Hall Saturday night with an intriguing blend of contemporary and Baroque music as part of its New Directions series.

Two works on the program, the little-played Harpsichord Concerto by Manuel de Falla and a set of variations by BB director Martin Pearlman, brought a modern touch to old forms.

With his Concerto for harpsichord, flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, and cello (1926), de Falla turned to the edgy neo-classicism that Stravinsky was making popular at the time. The work is filled with stabbing dissonances, burbling woodwind figures, and an overall polytonal language that results from criss-cross melodic figures.

Pearlman and the ensemble–Sarah Brady (flute), Jennifer Slowik (oboe), William Kirkley (clarinet), Julia McKenzie (violin) and Rafael Popper-Keizer (cello)–put across the machine-like rhythms in the outer movements with polish. Spacious sonorities in the second movement rang especially clear from the crisp wind and string playing, the music hovering gracefully over twinkling harpsichord arpeggios.

For Variations on WoO77 for solo piano, Pearlman took as source material the theme to a set of variations by Beethoven. It’s a delicate melody with a single chromatic note, but, in Pearlman’s hands and through Donald Berman’s sparkling piano playing, it yielded delightful results.

Unlike Beethoven’s tame and delicate set, Pearlman’s Variations are a whirlwind tour of spontaneity and style. Some involve a wash of running scales, others a mesh of witty pointillism. Others still bear hints of ragtime, Gershwinesque blues, and a melodic ebb and flow à la Chopin. When the original theme returns at piece’s end, it is transformed. Chromatic notes, left free to roam in the variations, push against the theme’s tonal barrier as if trying to break free from a cage.

The concert began with Arcangelo Corelli’s Trio Sonata Op. 3, No. 1 in F. Sonatas such as this one, with characteristic clarity, intimate structure, and dance-like quality, made them suitable for performances in the chamber or church. Pearlman (harpsichord), Laura Jeppesen (viola da gamba), and Daniel Stepner and McKenzie (Baroque violins) offered a lithe and elegantly-phrased reading.

What the piece lacked in emotional depth was made up for with two French works on the program. The first, Louis-Nicolas Clérambault’s secular cantata Orphée, tells a truncated version of Orpheus’ journey to the underworld through a string of affecting recitative and arias.

With resonant voice, soprano Teresa Wakim, a formidable Baroque stylist, captured the energy of the florid vocal lines. She softened her tone for a poignant central aria, where Orpheus pleads with Pluto to set his beloved Euridice free. Here, Pearlman, on harpsichord, and violinists Stepner and McKenzie accompanied with glassy harmonies and wistful flourishes; Jeppesen’s viola da gamba, when it entered, added weight. The final aria, which featured Wakim in a dazzling display of vocal fireworks, celebrated the triumph of love over death.

Pièce de clavecin en concert No. 3, one of five sets composed by Jean-Philippe Rameau, is a keyboard concerto in miniature. Pearlman, Stepner, and Jeppesen brought elegant and elastic phrasing to the regal first movement, an homage in music to Rameau’s patron La Poplinière. Their expressive flexible tempos suited the melancholy of the second movement, titled “La Timide.”

Its middle section gained momentum with dotted rhythms and fluffy trills traded between strings and harpsichord. The final movement, a spirited country dance, featured the musicians in rapid-fire passagework. Throughout, the music’s decorative French style glistened due to the ensemble’s delicate approach, which brought a charming end to the evening.

Boston Baroque will perform Beethoven’s Elegiac Song and Symphony No. 9, with soprano Leah Partridge, mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero, tenor William Burden, and bass Kevin Deas 8 p.m. November 8 and 9 at Jordan Hall.

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