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High Baroque

Photo by Josef AstorBIT BY BIT Thirty-three short pieces made up the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s program at Disney Hall last week: 29 orchestral bits by Rameau and Handel, and four Handel arias. I would not have spared a single one. There is something immensely joyous in the way both these composers employed their orchestral forces to tickle the fancies of their aristocratic audiences — and, more to the point, their pleasure-loving monarchs (Rameau’s Louis XV and Handel’s George I). Their music throbbed in dance rhythms, and the sounds themselves seemed to dance: the roulades for flutes and oboes, the daring leaps into midair for the horns, the fanciful treads for the strings, the solid anchoring chords from the keyboard. The Philharmonia Baroque, Bay Area–based, was one of the first ensembles on this coast to seek out the historically correct way of performing this music. The Berkeley hills in my grad-student days were alive with the sound of music: early-music making on harpsichords and clavichords from build-it-yourself kits, recorders and sackbuts brought home from European shops by the first generations of Fulbright scholars, horns without valves and therefore as treacherous to play upon as those at last week’s concert. Lively and ambitious musicians — the name of harpsichordist Laurette Goldberg remains in my memory — assembled the first Philharmonia Baroque in 1981; the English-born Nicholas McGegan came on a few years later, and the ensemble grew (in quality, that is, and, therefore, in fame). Several years ago they tried a concert series here at the County Museum that fizzled because of poor attendance; last week’s concert, in a hall three times the size, was very nearly sold out. McGegan, part hobbit and part wizard, is great fun to watch, as he doesn’t so much conduct as re-enact the music. His arms sweep around it in a giant bear hug, but the smallness of his frame enables him at times to disappear inside its glowing splendor. The program ended with one of the three suites that make up Handel’s Water Music, the one that ends with the hornpipe that sounds like a toy version of an Elgar Pomp and Circumstance of many decades later. Something in McGegan’s performance, at once grandiose and respectful, managed to reconstruct that bridge across the time span. Lisa Saffer was the evening’s soloist, bright-voiced and virtuosically sure. She is, like McGegan, an artist exceptionally adept in crossing time bridges. Her four Handel arias ranged from the deeply pathetic side of that composer’s work that we are only now properly honoring (“Se pietà” from Giulio Cesare) to the delicious goofiness of the “Sweet Bird” duet (from L’ Allegro) with flutist Stephen Schultz. The orchestra as heard here (lacking trumpets) numbered 36, larger than our Musica Angelica, but a good size to resound handsomely in Disney’s welcoming space. (Among its members is the violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock, who also plays with Angelica.) I can only hope that the turnout last week, and the response, signals more frequent visits for this excellent group and its greatly imaginative, cuddly conductor. They have been missed. TROUBLED SLEEP I am not at all sure whether the coupling of a piece called Insomnia and a 65-minute Bruckner symphony carried some deep soporific significance, but I’m willing to let the matter pass lacking further confirmation. The right of exit and re-entry during performances of Bruckner symphonies remains my prerogative, however, which I tend to exercise less often for the Seventh than for certain other symphonies in the canon. I remember being wide-awake for the tuba’s held C sharp at the end of the slow movement this time, and considering it one of the most beautiful sounds yet heard on the Disney Hall stage. Insomnia, composed in 2002, brought to a close the Philharmonic’s “3 x Salonen” minifest. Salonen had conducted it in a guest shot in San Francisco, and it’s also on the new DG disc with the Finnish Radio Orchestra, but now it’s an “official” work, and so much the better. The scoring includes four Wagner tubas, which makes it a fit program competitor (and, for my money, a shoo-in winner) for Bruckner. It doesn’t need that kind of skid grease; it’s a great work on its own. Salonen’s notes for the piece breathe menace and fear: not the nocturnal fantasies of Chopin or of the “Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare” of G&S, but of demons and machines and imprisonment. The dark-toned brass rumble and thud; the momentum holds you not by your breath, but by the scruff of your neck. Even the ending is ironic and bitter. The music quiets down, and the sunrise dispels the procession of nighttime torments; maybe now you can get to sleep, but it’s too late. The three Salonen works played during February date from 2000 to 2003, a pin drop in a composer’s life span. (Another work, Giro from 1982, revised 1997, was played during the month by the American Youth Symphony.) They are alike in outline — each lasts something like 25 minutes — and while the cello concerto, Mania, used a somewhat cut-down orchestra, all are aimed at a symphonic context. The real resemblance is on a higher level, however; each in its own way is the work of a composer with an extraordinary sense of what an orchestra can produce, what sonorities can arise from combinations and — most crucial — what lines of counterpoint are defined by which instruments. Each of these works sets about dealing with this matter in a distinctive way. So did the 1997 LA Variations, Salonen’s touchstone composition. Every time I hear that music, which is often, I am amazed all over again at how much of the inner workings of the variation process Salonen makes clear by his instrumental choices. Then there is some of this same technique, which seems to unfold in the teeth of a Pacific typhoon, in Wing on Wing, which is on the whole a lighter piece. In Mania it rides on the astonishment of the soloist’s virtuosity — Anssi Karttunen, not just a concert cellist but a Salonen surrogate in this instance. And in Insomnia the music grinds its way under the skin of each of us, leaving us so transfixed that even if the next piece on the program were something more substantial than Bruckner’s pathetic gesticulations, it wouldn’t matter.

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