St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of August 12, 2013

Highly Distracted Productions presents Asperger’s: A High Functioning Musical Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2 PM, August 16-18. “Back by popular demand after three sold out performances at the St. Lou Finge Festival, Asperger’s: A High Functioning Musical tells the story of six young adults with Asperger’s attending a support group as they face the problems of entering adulthood and leaving the pain of childhood behind. The songs can be rollicking and tender. Come celebrate the geek in all of us.” Performances take place in the Little Theater at Clayton High School, 1 Mark Twain Circle in Clayton. For more information: aspergermusical.brownpapertickets.com.

Moonlighting Theatre presents Charles Mee’s Big Love, based on The Suppliants by Aeschylus, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 PM and Sunday at 2 PM, August 16-18. Performances take place at the Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar. For more information, visit moonlightingtheatre.org.

The Pub Theater Company presents Bye Bye Liver: The St. Louis Drinking Play, a comedic romp through the joys and pitfalls of The Gateway to the West’s favorite pastime. Performances take place on Saturdays at 9 PM at Maggie O’Brien’s, 2000 Market Street. For more information, you may call 314-827-4185, email stlouis at byebyeliver.com, or visit byebyeliver.com/stlouis.

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents Dead Like Me through November 16. The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com

Peter Wochniak

Stages St. Louis presents Legally Blonde, the Musical through August 18. Performances take place in the Robert G. Reim Theatre at the Kirkwood Community Center, 111 South Geyer Road in Kirkwood. “Sorority sister Elle thinks she has her future all tied up with a nice, little pink ribbon, until her boyfriend suddenly dumps her for someone more “serious.” But don’t break out the tissues just yet! This is one girl who doesn’t take “no” for an answer as she sets out to prove that being true to yourself and going after “what you want” never goes out of style.” For more information, visit stagesstlouis.org or call 314-821-2407. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

Encore! Theater Group presents John Logan’s two-character drama Red, about 20th Century abstract painter Mark Rothko. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8, August 16 and 17, at the Warehouse at All Trades Supply located at 10 Kirkham Industrial Drive, Webster Groves. “Mark Rothko is at the height of his powers. His work, long rejected by critics, is suddenly hailed as some of the most important of this century. He is the new king of art in New York, and his coronation will be the flashiest commission in the history of painting: $35,000 for a series of epic murals at the Four Seasons restaurant. But…canvases this large cannot be lifted by a single man, not even a titan. So he hires an assistant (Ken). This young artist and his fiery ideas force Rothko, the surest thing in the world of modern art, to question everything. John Logan’s 90-minute intellectual thrill-ride serves as a puzzling reminder of how difficult and dangerous the climb towards an artistic vision can be, and how worthwhile. “ The cast includes 88.1 KDHX theatre critic Steve Callahan as Mark Rothko. For more information: email encoretheatergroup at gmail.com, call (314) 329-8998, or visit squareup.com/market/noxp-entertainment-corp/red-tickets.

Photo: John Lamb

The Theatre Lab presents Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited through August 17. “The play involves only two nameless characters, designated “White” and “Black”, their respective skin colors. Offstage, just before the play begins, Black saves White from throwing himself in front of a train. The title, The Sunset Limited, is derived from the name of a passenger train that travels from New Orleans to Los Angeles. All of the action takes place in Black’s sparse apartment, where the characters go (at the behest of Black) after their encounter on the platform. Black is an ex-convict and an evangelical Christian. White is an atheist and a professor. They debate the meaning of human suffering, the existence of God, and the propriety of White’s attempted suicide.” Performances take place at the Gaslight Theater on North Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: (314) 599-3309

Insight Theatre Company presents Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies August 15-25. Performances take place in the Heagney Theatre, 530 East Lockwood on the campus of Nerinx Hall High School in Webster Groves. For more information, call 314-556-1293 or visit insighttheatrecompany.com.

St. Louis Shakespeare presents Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen August 16-25. “During a war waged by Theseus of Athens against Thebes, two Theban cousins, Palamon and Arcite are captured and imprisoned. Their lifelong friendship is disrupted when first Palamon, then Arcite, sees and instantly falls in love with Emilia, sister to Theseus’ wife Hippolyta. Meanwhile their jailer’s daughter has fallen in love with Palamon. When Arcite is freed and exiled, she helps Palamon escape. Lost, knowing the hopelessness of her love and fearing the consequences of her actions, she goes mad. Palamon and Arcite’s conflict over Emilia is resolved by Theseus’ decree that the two will fight a public duel; the winner will receive the hand of Emilia; the loser will be executed.” Performances take place in the Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road. For more information, call 314-361-5664 or visit stlshakespeare.org.

Union Avenue Opera presents Wagner’s Die Walküre, the second of the four “Ring” operas, in a condensed and reduced version by English composer Jonathan Dove, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, August 16-24. Performances take place at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. The opera is sung in German with projected English text. For more information, visit unionavenueopera.org or call 314-361-2881.

Ebb tide

When most folks think of cabaret, I expect the image that comes to mind is that of a single performer backed up by a piano, possibly augmented with bass or percussion.  That’s certainly the most common arrangement but, as singer (and visual artist) Dionna Raedeke and guitarist Mike Krysl will be demonstrating this Friday, it’s by no means the only one.

A relatively new addition to the St. Louis cabaret scene, Ms. Raedeke has garnered raves for her singing and musical taste.  “Dionna is one of my new favorite singers,” says actor, singer and teacher Jason Graae. “Her voice has such a haunting beauty and it comes directly from her soul.”  New York-based singer, songwriter and music director Rick Jensen—who accompanied Ms. Raedeke for her 2011 show Sight – Sound—agrees, describing her as a “vocally compelling and consistently original in her performance.”

For her new show, titled Ebb and Flow, Ms. Raedeke has put together an evening in which the sound will be acoustic, the mood mellow, and the song choices rather different from the Great American Songbook standards that are so often associated with cabaret.  Expect 70s rock, contemporary singer/songwriters, and even some new tunes.  Ms. Raedeke, with a nod to her visual artist side (and with tongue somewhat in cheek), describes the evening as a “carefully curated” one that features “everything from Pink Floyd to PINK.”

Expect arrangements that will make you re-think familiar songs as well.  An inventive musician who lists influences as diverse as Robin Trower, Django Reinhardt and Leonard Bernstein, Mike Krysl has often impressed me with both the ingenuity and virtuosity of his inventive and original takes on rock and pop standards.  I remember being particularly blown away by what he and singer Shauna Sconce did with some of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon at their recently concluded monthly sessions at The Wine Press.

“Mike Krysl’s sound is taut, deep and brilliantly soulful,” says local cabaret artist Katie McGrath. “Dionna’s voice is plaintive, joyous and straight-arrow true. My favorite musician with my favorite singer. And the angels smile.”  As someone who has been both a critic and performer on the local cabaret scene for many years and who has had the pleasure of seeing both Ms. Raedeke and Mr. Krysl in action, I heartily concur.

The one and only performance of Ebb and Flow is this Friday, August 9th, at 8 PM at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive at the intersection of Skinker and Wydown.  A not-for-profit music venue, performance space and art gallery, The Chapel has played host to a number of cabaret shows over the last few years.  It’s an attractive, unconventional space in a quiet residential neighborhood that provides its services free to local musicians as part of its mission to support the arts in St. Louis.  I think that’s pretty admirable and worth supporting.

Tickets, which are available at the door and at ebbandflow.brownpapertickets.com (along with some free sample music tracks), are $20 and include two free drinks.  Parking is free as well.  Come on down Friday and smile with the angels.

On the other hand

Photo: Joanne Savio

The history of pianist Leon Fleisher’s career is one of the great comeback stories in American life.

His genius was apparent as early as age 9, when he became the youngest pupil ever to be taught by the great Artur Schnabel. By age 16 he was appearing with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Monteux. When he signed a deal with Columbia/Epic in 1954 to record every major piano and orchestra work from the standard repertoire with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, it was a bit of musical history in the making—and he was only in him mid-20s. The recordings he made for the label between 1954 and 1963 are still considered classics.

Then, at the height of Fleisher’s career, disaster struck in the form of focal dystonia of the right hand in 1965. Undaunted, he continued to record and perform, concentrating on works for the left hand alone. There’s more of that than you might think thanks, in part, to the many works written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein (older brother of famed philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), who lost his right hand in World War I.

By the early years of the 21st century, though, Fleisher began to recover the use of his right hand as a result of botox injections and the system of soft tissue manipulation known as Rolfing. In 2004 he made his first two-handed recording in forty years and continues to concertize today. In a review for 88.1 KDHX of his performance of Ravel’s “Concerto for the Left Hand” with the St. Louis Symphony last April, I described his playing as “both powerful and elegant.” “Mr. Fleisher may walk like an octogenarian,” I wrote, “but he doesn’t play like one.”

In recognition of Fleisher’s fifty-five year career, Sony Classical (which now owns the Columbia/Epic library) is issuing a 23-CD set titled “Leon Fleisher: The Complete Album.” It’s scheduled for release on July 16th, in anticipation of Fleisher’s 85th birthday on the 23rd. Fleisher himself will observe his birthday year with a concert tour that will include a performance with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival on July 28th.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously claimed that there were “no second acts in American life.” Leon Fleisher is one of the more famous examples of how wrong that assessment can be.

Spring Forward

Jerome Elliott

Palm Springs-based cabaret artist Jerome Elliott is making his St. Louis solo cabaret debut this Saturday (June 29) at 8 PM at the Chapel with “My Favorite Springs,” produced by Mariposa Artists. But Mr. Elliott’s relationship with St. Louis goes back several years. He sees St. Louis, in fact, as “the birthplace of my work in cabaret” due to his participation in the St. Louis Cabaret Conference in 2007.

“Prior to the 2007 workshop,” he said in an email interview, “I had done a couple of cabaret shows in Palm Springs, going by instinct only. The first St. Louis year propelled me to dig deeper into the craft and led me to the Yale Conference in 2008. In turn, the Yale Conference made me want to investigate even more, which brought me back to St. Louis in 2009. Since then I’ve created five original shows that I have performed in Palm Springs, New York, Seattle and Los Angeles. I would not have accomplished that without the work I did in St. Louis.”

Mr. Elliott also appreciates the vitality of the St. Louis cabaret scene. “I look at the St. Louis cabaret community,” he notes, “as a model for keeping this art form moving forward. As a direct result of the annual workshops, you have created a very supportive and nurturing environment for cabaret. Through social media, I’ve kept up with many of the friends I met during my two visits and I admire how many of you have continued to study and grow. I am amazed at the breadth and frequency of cabaret activity that goes on in St. Louis.” Indeed, he asked Katie McGrath (of Women Under the Influence) to do an opening set for his show here precisely “because she exemplifies what I like to call the Spirit of St. Louis.”

Based on an earlier Palm Springs show, “My Favorite Springs” pays homage both to the season spring and to the famous hot springs of his hometown in the California desert. The eclectic song list spans eight decades and includes works by Noel Coward, Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hart, Harry Chapin, William Finn, Amanda McBroom, Gordon Lightfoot, Steve Marzullo, Mark Campbell and Jerry Herman. There’s even a number (Coachella Valley Blues) with lyrics by Mr. Elliott himself.

Music director and pianist for the show is Jasmine co-founder and Webster University faculty member Carol Schmidt, whose work is frequently scene on local cabaret stages. Carol is also the music director for The Cabaret Project’s monthly open mic series at Tavern of Fine Arts

Mixing a rich baritone with a sly wit, Elliott has received accolades for his performances in New York (The Duplex), Los Angeles (M Bar), Seattle (Julia’s and Egan’s), as well as at many cabaret venues in the Palm Springs area. His work in Southern California music and theater has garnered seven nominations for the Desert Theatre League’s annual Desert Star Awards.

Mr. Elliot, though, says he thinks of himself primarily as “an actor who sings” rather than a singer per se. “I’ve learned that one of my natural abilities is story-telling. I like to give myself leeway to improvise within the patter. I love to write patter and a good third of my show consists of talk.”

“My Favorite Springs” bounces on to the stage at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive in Clayton, on Saturday, June 29, at 8 PM. As its name implies, The Chapel is a converted chapel that now serves as both a performing arts venue and a gallery space, which makes for a very friendly and mellow vibe.  For more information: brownpapertickets.com; look for event 365191.

A league of their own

The view from the stage

If the rest of the League of American Orchestras conference here goes as well as the special St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert they saw tonight did, it will certainly be a week to remember. Maestro David Robertson conducted a very full program (two and one-half hours with intermission) that showed off the orchestra’s versatility: arias and overtures by Mozart and Wagner (with powerful performances by bass-baritone Eric Owens) along with Sibelius’s 7th symphony (which still sounds strikingly original nearly 90 years later) and John Adams’s flashy but (to my ears) rather empty “Doctor Atomic” symphony.

There was heroic work by the brass and percussion in the Adams and fine playing all around.  The string sound in the Sibelius was particularly striking.

After a week in Fort Worth for the Cliburn Competition and another week in Boston for the Boston Early Music Festival, it was nice to settle back with the home town band at Powell Hall—even if I am more aware of its acoustic shortcomings as a result of my travels over the last twelve months.  It’s still a lovely space and, to quote a Tom Lehrer lyric, “what the hell, it’s home.”

Boston Early Music Festival, Day 4: A Mighty Wind

The biennial Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF), which ran June 9 through 16 this year, is an annual cavalcade of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music featuring top early music performers and ensembles from around the world. I covered it along with a raft of other critics from the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), which had its annual conference this in conjunction with BEMF.

The fourth and last day (Sunday, June 16) was a one-concert day for me, but it was a good one: “Angeli, Zingare e Pastore: Symbols and Allegories in Italian Renaissance Music” by The Royal Wind Music, a recorder ensemble created by Paul Leenhouts, the director of early music studies at North Texas University and a professor for recorder and historical development at Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam. The program apparently draws from their CD of the same name on the Lindoro label.

It’s a big family

Most recorder ensembles I’ve heard have been small—maybe three or four players—and limited to the higher-pitched members of the family. The recorder clan, however, is actually quite a large one, ranging in size from the twelve-inch sopranino to the massive sub-contrabass (over 10’). The thirteen members of The Royal Winds play all of them, producing a sound that is organ-like in its depth and sonority.

The parallel isn’t exact, of course. The Baroque organ had a much more varied sound, with stops that imitated other instruments. As an all-recorder band, The Royal Wind Music produces a wide range of pitches (several octaves worth) but a relatively limited tonal palette. When I think of Renaissance and Baroque wind music, I tend to think in terms of mixed groups like the late Noah Greenberg’s New York Pro Musica or contemporary ensembles like Piffaro that augment the recorders with shawms, sackbuts, crumhorns, and bagpipes. The Royal Wind Music tends to sound a bit monochromatic by comparison.

Paul LeenhoutsPhoto: Toon Vieijra

That said, there’s no denying that, taken on its own terms, The Royal Wind Music does itself proud. It’s clearly a virtuoso assembly of versatile players, nearly all of whom appear to be comfortable with multiple members of the recorder family. Whether performing in trios, quartets, or quintets, or as a full ensemble, the sound they produced was uniformly pleasing. Mr. Leenhouts’s arrangements showcased the instruments and players nicely.

The program, while varied and interesting, did not strike me as being structured as effectively as possible. In the first half, for example, four slow, reverential late 16th-century religious works were grouped together in a way that threatened to produce what Peter Schickele (in a radically different context) describes as “a confused slumber.”

The second half of the concert changed things up a bit more, though, with some dance-inspired works by (among others) Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605) and Giovanni Maria Trabaci (ca. 1575-1647). A set of galliards by the latter brought the concert to a lively conclusion, followed by a standing ovation and a full ensemble encore.

Taken as a whole, this was a satisfying way to end my four-day immersion in early music. After being immersed in the 19th and early 20th century piano and orchestra repertoire at the Cliburn Competition the week before, the music of the 16th and 17th centuries made for a pleasant contrast.

Boston Early Music Festival, Day 3: Escales

The biennial Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF), which ran June 9 through 16 this year, is an annual cavalcade of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music featuring top early music performers and ensembles from around the world. I covered it along with a raft of other critics from the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), which had its annual conference this in conjunction with BEMF.

Day three (Saturday, June 15) involved less dashing about than the previous day, which gave me a chance to wander about the exhibition rooms at the Revere Hotel. As you can see by the picture gallery at the end of this article, makers of a wide variety of historical instruments were well represented: viols, recorders, harps, Baroque flutes and violins (along with appropriate bows), and (of course) many varieties of harpsichord, clavichord, and organ—even old-style fortepianos of the sort Mozart and Beethoven used. All were clearly the work of master craftsmen (and women)—with appropriate price tags.

Jordi Savall

My first concert (2:30 PM at Jordan Hall) was one I’d been looking forward to: Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI (a group whose makeup, according to a fellow critic, consists of “whoever Jordi Savall is working with at the moment”) with “Istanbul: Dimitrie Cantemir’s ‘The Book of the Science of Music’ and the Ottoman, Sephardic, Greek, and Armenian Traditions”. Cantimir (1673-1723) was a noted virtuoso on a long-necked lute-like instrument called the tanbur as well as a composer and scholar. “The Science of Music” is both a treatise on music theory and a collection of 355 compositions which, according to Mr. Savall’s notes, “constitutes the most important collection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ottoman instrumental music to have survived to the present day.”

About this genre (to quote Tom Lehrer in a different context) “I am knowing from nothing.” But it didn’t require an expert ear to appreciate the virtuosity of Mr. Savall (playing vielle and lyre) and his fellow musicians, who were: Hakan Güngör on kanun (a zither-like instrument played with metal finger picks), Yurdal Tokcan and Driss el Maloumi on oud (essentially a Persian lute), Haïg Sarikouyoumdjian on ney and duduk (recorder-esque woodwinds), Dimitri Sonis on tanbur and santur (relative to the hammered dulcimer), and David Mayoral on percussion.

[Mr. Mayoral’s battery included a dumbek, a hourglass-shaped metal drum that I’ve been playing around with myself, so I was watching him especially closely in hopes of picking up some tips. I wasn’t disappointed.]

This iteration of Hespèrion XXI produced an array of exotic sounds that brought ancient Istanbul to vivid life in the hart of contemporary Boston. You could almost smell the spices, feel the hot sun, and taste the thick, black coffee. This was music that was sensuous and joyful, and the BEMF audience—which seems to be less uncritically enthusiastic than most American classical music audiences—awarded them with a standing ovation rivaling the one that greeted “Almira” Friday night. The group responded with an encore consisting of three different versions of the same tune: Greek, Sephardic, and Ottoman. As an illustration of the rich multicultural stew brewing in Istanbul at the end of the 17th century, it couldn’t have been more perfect.

Seven PM found me back at Jordan for a double bill of chamber operas written for the court of Louis XIV’s unmarried cousin, Marie de Lorraine, by Marc Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704): “Le Descente d’Orpheé aux Enfers” (“Orpheus’s Descent into Hades”) and “La Couronne de Fleurs” (“The Crown of Flowers”). The score for “Orpheé” is incomplete—only two of the presumed three acts survive—so director Gilbert Blin created a kind of “Charpentier sandwich”, placing “Orpheé” between the second and final scenes of “Couronne.”

That’s not as odd as it sounds. The plot of “Couronne” (such as it is) has a chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses engaging in a contest to see who can come up with the most poetically beautiful paean to the magnificence of King Louis (Charpentier knew what to kiss and when, as they say). The judge is the goddess Flore and the prize is the titular crown.

The Orpheus story, in this context, is performed by the rustics as a way to demonstrate that even the ancient stories of the gods pale in comparison to Le Roi-Soleil. When the company gets to the end of Charpentier’s score, Mr. Blin has Louis XIV’s notoriously dictatorial court composer, Jean Baptiste Lully, walk on stage and invoke his royal privilege of restricting public performance of operas to his own works (which, historically, he did). The company then concludes by deciding that, since no mortal can adequately praise the king, the only solution is to divide the crown among all the contestants, wish Louis eternal life, and call it a day.

Charpentier’s score is, without a doubt, finely wrought and beautiful stuff. It was all magnificently sung and, like “Almira,” acted and danced in historically appropriate style. But even the remarkable Mr. Blin and his music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs—the team that scored such a hit with “Almira”—could not, in my view, overcome the dramatic inertia of this material. I also found it hard to stomach all the fawning praise of a particularly wretched monarch, but that’s just me.

That said, the audience appeared to love it all to bits and gave it a standing ovation.

Stephen Stubbs

Saturday’s late-night concert (11 PM at the Jordan) took us to an entirely different world. The early music ensemble Tragicomedia “and friends”, directed by Mr. Stubbs, brought us “Singen, Spielen, Trinken, Tanzen: Hamburg in Handel’s Time.” As the title indicates, this was a neat tie-in with “Almira” (which Handel composed for Hamburg) and, in fact, the program included a couple of scenes from the opera for which Handel was conducting the band from the harpsichord when he got the “Almira” commission: Johann Matteson’s “Cleopatra.” They were pretty silly stuff and went a long way towards explaining why the opera has fallen into obscurity.

But then, “silly stuff” characterizes most of what went on in this concert. This was nothing if not good-humored music-making and a reminder that guys like Telemann, Lully and (especially) Heinrich Schütz liked to have a good time a much as anyone. There was, for example, a slightly rude madrigal “Scherschliep! Messerschliep!” (“O shear-grinder! Knife-grinder!”) by Sebastian Knüpfer (performed with gusto by Jason McStoots, Zachary Wilder, and Christian Immler); a rudely rebuffed seduction scene played out with songs by Telemann; and a performance of Monteverdi’s lively “Chiome d’oro, bel Tesoro” (“Hair of gold, beautiful treasure”) from 1619 followed by Schütz’s satirical German translation from around 1650. It’s a reminder that parody lyrics didn’t start with Weird Al Yankovic.

Throughout the evening Harlequin, danced by Caroline Copeland, provided comic bridges between numbers and silently led everyone in a Knüpfer drinking song at the end. If there were any doubt that early music can be great fun, this would have dispelled it. I took the Green Line subway back to the hotel in a very cheerful state of mind.

Photo gallery: BEMF exhibition rooms.  Not too bad for iPhone snaps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boston Early Music Festival, Day 2: Manic Friday

Running June 9th through 16th this year, the biennial Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) is a biennial cavalcade of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music featuring top early music performers and ensembles from around the world. I covered it along with a raft of other critics from the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), which had its annual conference this in conjunction with BEMF.

Day two of the festival and conference could have been called a Manic Monday, except that it was Friday. MCANA members had a 10 AM session on Baroque opera in general and the festival’s production of Handel’s “Almira” in particular, followed by lunch, followed by a Q and A session on early music. Both of those sessions were interesting enough to deserve their own blog posts, so I won’t go into detail on them here.

Gli Incogniti

The first concert of my day (at 5 PM) was at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, site of the majority of the BEMF concerts. It featured four members of the Italian ensemble Gli Incogniti (Amadine Beyer, Baroque violin; Baldomero Barciela, viola da gamba; Francesco Romano, theorbo and Baroque guitar; and Anna Fontana, harpsichord and organ) in “Viennoiseries: Austrian Music in the Stylus Fantasticus from the 17th Century.” Stylus Fantasticus, according to program notes by Ms. Beyer, is a compositional approach associated with the Austrian Hapsburg courts of the latter half of the 17th century and is characterized by “a flamboyant and original style not found in other music of the period.” If what I heard at Jordan Hall on Friday was any indication, this is also music that demands considerable virtuosity—which it certainly got from this group.

Ms. Beyer was particularly stunning in von Biber’s “Sonata violino solo representativa,” in which the soloist is called upon to imitate a variety of birds and beats (including Musketeers!) as was Francesco Romano in a Toccata from Johannes Heironymous Kapsberger’s 1640 “Libro Quarto”, but all four members impressed me with their skill. I’m told Ms. Fontana, who worked with a harpsichord stacked on top of an organ console, thereby enabling her to elegantly play both at once, had a terrific solo of her own towards the end of the program. Alas, I missed it, because I had to dash across town to the Cutler Majestic Theater to make the 7 PM curtain of Handel’s “Almira.”

Almira and ladies in waitingPhoto: classical-scene.com

“Almira” was the first operatic hit by the 19-year-old Handel, who got the commission to compose it because, essentially, he was in the right place at the right time. The libretto by Friedrich Christian Feustking is a preposterous romantic comedy set (more or less) in medieval Spain and revolving around what appears to be a star-crossed romance between the newly crowned Queen Almira (Ulrike Hofbauer) and her secretary Fernando (Colin Balzer). All difficulties are eventually resolved via a ludicrous plot twist worthy of W.S. Gilbert, but not before we’ve had nearly four hours of impressive arias da capo and some lavish set pieces (demanded by the Hamburg audiences), including a Grand Procession of the Continents (Europe, Africa, and Asia; America didn’t count yet).

A four-hour youthful Handel opera might sound like a bit of a slog but in BEMF’s production it was anything but. Director Gilbert Blin and music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs treated both the music and the audience with respect. The production was a scrupulously historic re-creation of the original, complete with forced-perspective sets that looked exactly like the ones I’ve always seen in the history books, period dances, and a historically appropriate acting style that relied on precisely choreographed gestures (hands spread wide to appeal, had extended and finger ranged to admonish/repel, etc.).

And it worked, both as music and drama. Every performer was thoroughly invested in his or her character, each was perfectly cast, and every one sang beautifully.

Ms. Hofbauer and Mr. Balzer were exceptional all the way through. Amanda Forsythe, as Princess Edilia, had what must be the best revenge aria ever in the second act. Jason McStoots got his share of laughs as the comic servant Tabarco. Others in the uniformly fine cast were Christian Immler as the buffoonish Consalvo, Zachary Wilder as his social climber son Osman, Tyler Duncan as the disguised King of Mauretania (who seems to be on board only to make the triple betrothal at the end possible), and Valerie Vinzant as Princess Bellante (ditto).

Áine Ní Dhroighneáin

The orchestra, which used instruments appropriate to the period, sounded glorious. The production received a wild ovation and multiple curtain calls. Alas, I had to rush out while they were still going on to make an 11:15 performance of “My Small Dark Rose: Early Irish Songs and Harp Music” at Emmanuel Church a few blocks away.

Siobhán Armstrong

The titular song and fifteen other traditional Irish songs and instrumentals were performed with consummate style by singer Áine Ní Dhroighneáin and early Irish harper Siobhán Armstrong, although Ms. Ní Dhroighneáin’s singing did not always do justice to the strong emotions in some of the texts—most notably in “Táimse im’ Chodldh” (“I am asleep and don’t waken me”) with its open call for violent rebellion against the English. It was a program of delicate, intimate music—the early Irish harp’s metal strings don’t create a very big sound—that was poorly served by the church’s vast, echoing acoustic. The artists deserved better.

And on that note, I reeled (puns intended) into bed, another day of remarkable music in the offing.

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