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Friday, March 21, 2014

Concert Review: The Baroque Basement Tapes

The American Classical Orchestra unearths Handel's Alceste.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Old school: Thomas Crawford directs the American Classical Orchestra from the keyboard.
Photo © 2014 The American Classical Orchestra.
Digging deep into the catalogue of a major composer can prove rewarding for both musicians and their audience. That was the case on a rainy Wednesday night at Alice Tully Hall, where the American Classical Orchestra performed the final program of HandelFest a four-concert program celebrating the music of Georg Frederic Handel, Britain's favorite German musical import.

The American Classical Orchestra is a longstanding "occasional" ensemble, that is one that assembles as needed, drawing its members from the vast pool of musicians in the New York area. They play on "period" instruments, using antique stringed instruments, wooden finger-hole oboes and bassoons and "natural" horns and trumpets without the valves and complicated piping of modern instruments under the direction of music director Thomas Crawford.

The concert opened with two of Handel's Concerti for Due Chori, pitting two wind ensembles (bassoon, oboe, horns) against each other, supported by string players. The four hornists played natural instruments, with their lengths of brass tubing extended by crooks, curved pieces of pipe that produce lower notes and enable the instrumentalist to play in different keys. Despite some early intonation problems, this was a display of what skilled players can do, including at least one credible trill produced by lip embouchre and breath control alone.

The next work on the program was the Jubilate, Handel's first choral piece upon his arrival in England and receiving the patronage of the newly installed Hanover monarch King George I. With a choral ensemble hand-picked from some fine but lesser-known singers, this was a powerful, moving performance of the work, led with power and rhythmic drive by Mr. Crawford. He alternated between leading from the keyboard and conducting on his feet. The deep rich tones of the cellos and bassoons bloomed in the dry acoustic, alternating with the bright ring of natural, valve-less trumpets.

The jewel of this program was a rare performance of Alceste, a stage work from 1749 that was never mounted in Handel's lifetime. Alceste is not an opera, or an oratorio, but a masque, that peculiar stage entertainment which would accompany a stage play in 18t century English theater. It was Handel's first attempt to follow up Theodora, his last oratorio whose combination of artistic success and total financial failure led him to abandon that genre. But unlike the unlucky Theodora, Alceste (and the play that it accompanied) was never mounted in the composer's lifetime.

For this performance, Mr. Crawford opted to add instrumental works from the Handel catalogue and have them accompany dancers playing Alceste and Admetus. The addition of these interludes follows a practice from the composer's day. Handel's wind pieces or organ concertos were often broken into single movements, which would entertain the audience between acts of his operas and oratorios. The dancing also created a poetic contrast to the surviving musical numbers, helping the audience track the story as Alceste sacrificed herself to save her lover Admetus, descended to the underworld and was finally rescued by the Greek hero Hercules.

The vocal cast was very strong, led by Ms. Krull as Calliope and tenor Randal Bills as Hercules. These two New York City Opera veterans performed adroitly, with rich tone and an impressive display of ornamentation in the da capo sections of their arias. The (unintentional) scene-stealer was Robert Balonek, whose entry as Charon reminded audience members why long capes are sometimes a bad idea. That mishap aside, he cut an imposing figure, singing his aria with a crisp baritone that had just the right hint of darkness for the ferryman of the dead. The spare staging by Cynthia Edwards and choreographer John Heginbotham made imaginative use of the Spartan space, drawing the audience into this dated but fascinating myth. That old impresario Handel might have loved it.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.