Pearlman, Boston Baroque bring fresh life to Handel’s “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day”

March 20, 2022 at 12:26 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Martin Pearlman conducted Boston Baroque Saturday night in Calderwood Studio.

For all his work in the profitable realms of opera and oratorio, George Frideric Handel occasionally took time to write music for music’s sake.

His Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, which extols the glories of vocal and instrumental art, was written for the mere enjoyment of its players. But though it was immensely popular after its 1739 premiere, the cantata is rarely heard in live performances today.

Fortunately, Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque shed new light on this neglected score Sunday afternoon at GBH’s Calderwood Studio, in a performance marked by verve and vitality.

The patron saint of music, St. Cecilia was revered by musicians and artists as the symbol for the very essence of life. So thought John Dryden, whose poetry spun a vivid tale of how music retains the power to both create and destroy. Handel’s setting offers a colorful spectacle, with instrumental solos framing the sweeping vocal lines.

Pearlman charted a course through the score that traced every curve of its melodic peaks and valleys. Sudden shifts in dynamics injected energy, and the orchestra’s fire and precision provided ample counterweight to the singers in the choruses and arias.

Guest soprano Elena Villalón, who received acclaim for a vocal recital in Washington last week, was an elegant vocal presence in her featured moments. Her rendering of “What passions cannot music raise and quell” sparkled down to every trill and mordant. She brought haunting distance to the “The soft complaining flute,” her vocal line a supple backdrop for flutist Joseph Monticello’s tender accompaniment. Villalón and organist Peter Sykes conveyed the sacred reverence of “But oh! What art can teach.”

Rufus Müller brought soft urgency to the opening “From harmony,” his warm tenor revealing varying degrees of darkness and light. Müller’s clarion voice matched trumpeter Jesse Levine’s bold fanfares in “The trumpet’s loud clangor,” while Jeffrey Bluhm delivered requisite thunder with well-placed timpani strokes.

Elsewhere, the orchestra provided a sense of wild abandon, rendering the Overture and March with regal pomp. The chorus’s firm balance and percussive diction captured the warm resplendence of “From harmony” and the fervency of the concluding “The dead shall live.”

Vivaldi’s Gloria, which made up the first half of the program, offered moodier contrasts. Orchestral passages in Sunday’s performance recalled the brisk exuberance of the composer’s many concertos. Yet Pearlman found moments of reflection and almost operatic pathos.

The conductor kept an eye to the big picture, leading the Gloria and Quoniam choruses with fleet tempos that put the music across with crackling ardor. But due to the venue’s dry acoustic or perhaps to balancing set for the afternoon’s livestream, the lines felt at times too softly focused and understated.

The chorus proved more effective in the other movements. Et in terra pax took on palpable despair, suggesting that any call for earthly peace would be a hard-won effort. The fugue on Propter magnam released its tension through hushed tones, and the singers projected the concluding Cum sancto spiritu with resonant assurance.

The soloists, drawn from the choir’s ranks, brought searching lyricism to the duets and arias. Sopranos Olivia Miller and Kelley Hollis made for ideal complement in the Laudamus te. Carrie Cheron’s plum-dark mezzo-soprano transformed the Domine Deus into a poignant plea for mercy.

Pearlman opened the concert by leading the ensemble in Mycola Lysenko’s “Prayer for Ukraine.” Such visible support for the war-torn nation has become common in concerts around the country. But Boston Baroque is going a step further. Door attendants on Sunday provided a QR code that took patrons to a website where donations could be made on the Ukrainians’ behalf. The funds will hopefully provide some much-needed support to the stricken nation.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at GBH’s Calderwood Studio.

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