Turner, Emmanuel Music fete St. Cecilia in superb style in season opener

September 23, 2018 at 11:28 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Ryan Turner conducted music of Handel and Britten in Emmanuel Music's season-opening concert Saturday night.

Ryan Turner conducted music of Handel and Britten in Emmanuel Music’s season-opening concert Saturday night.

Emmanuel Music kicked off its new season Saturday night with a jubilant homage to St. Cecilia at Emmanuel Church. Artistic director Ryan Turner led a program focusing on works honoring the Roman Catholic patron saint of music by Benjamin Britten and George Frideric Handel.

Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day dates from 1739. A setting of John Dryden’s eponymous poem, the Ode plays to Handel’s formidable skills as a text painter. The framing choruses portray the function of music in the universe’s creation and destruction, while recitatives and airs celebrate the roles various instruments play in daily (or imagined-daily) life: flutes accompanying hopeless lovers, trumpets leading men into battle, and so forth.

Much of the music was adapted by Handel from harpsichord suites by his contemporary Gottlieb Muffat. You might be hard-pressed to guess that given the expressive naturalness of the settings and the craftiness of Handel’s appropriations of his colleague’s music.

Saturday’s performance of the Ode was full of energy and color, featuring sophisticated instrumental playing and excellent singing.

Turner led the Emmanuel Orchestra in a lithe, dancing take on the Overture and a graceful reading of the central March. The ensemble’s accompaniments, especially of the involved airs with instrumental duets, were robust, with trumpet and organ solos by Terry Everson and Michael Beattie, respectively, leading the way.

The Emmanuel Chorus sang their selections with faultless blend and balance. Textures in the outer choruses were rounded, clean, and discreetly shaped. This led to some vigorous climaxes, especially in the concluding end-of-the-world fugue (“The dead shall live, the living die,/And music shall untune the sky.”).

Vocal soloists were drawn, as always, from the larger group; all were excellent.

Tenor Matthew Anderson delivered an elegant, warm account of the opening recitative. Jessica Petrus sang a sweetly inviting “What passion cannot music raise and quell!” and Charles Blandy’s “The trumpet’s loud clangor” was exciting and surely paced.

Kristen Watson turned in a dolorous performance of “The soft complaining flute” while Jonas Budris made agile work of “Sharp violins proclaim.” Sarah Moyer sang a time-stopping “But oh, what art can teach”: golden-toned, note-perfect, and expressively pure.

Carley DeFranco’s “Orpheus could lead the savage race” was aptly burnished, her melismas with the violins spot-on. And Samantha Dotterweich’s solos from the balcony in the closing “As from the pow’r of sacred lays” potently led the way to the Ode’s mighty closing fugue.

Before the Handel came a well-paced, often propulsive interpretation of Britten’s 1942 Hymn to St. Cecilia. Setting words by W. H. Auden, the piece is laid out in three parts, each of which ends with a supplication to the titular deity.

The first section was highly polished Saturday and rhythmically exact. The second’s spirited counterpoint bristled and Turner illustrated the movement’s structure through careful attention to dynamic nuance.

Intense shadings of tone and volume marked the Hymn’s longer third part. Here a vocal quartet – led by Moyer’s elastic soprano – simply floated their entries, while shadows crept across the score’s dark, central part.

The night began with trumpeters Everson, Bruce Hall, and Adam Gautille playing more music by Britten: the short, 1959 Fanfare for St. Edmundsbury. In an adept trope on the genre, each instrumentalist is given a substantial solo in different keys; all three are heard in combination in a clarion apotheosis.

Saturday’s reading – with trumpets placed across Emmanuel Church’s balcony – left a blazing impression, one that was only reinforced by a reprise of its refrain while the choir repositioned itself behind the orchestra between the Britten and the Handel works.

Emmanuel Music will feature music by Benjamin Britten as part of this year’s Britten Chamber Festival. 8 p.m. November 2 at Emmanuel Church. emmanuelmusic.org; 617-536-3356.

Posted in Performances

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