Andreas Scholl and Philharmonia Baroque: Great Music Mixed With Fun

Niels Swinkels on November 15, 2014
LEFT: Andreas Scholl, photo: Decca/James McMillan RIGHT: Nicholas McGegan, photo: Randi Beach


Nothing is more moving and uplifting than great art. Except great art that is also a party for performers and audience alike.

Because that’s what elevates it to “Great Art”.

Julian Wachner deliberately emphasizes the sensuality and the religious and human emotions in Bach’s music.

This most certainly applied to Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s Friday night concert with German countertenor Andreas Scholl and guest conductor Julian Wachner, who recently made his debut at San Francisco Opera with Handel’s opera Partenope.

Wachner kindly extended his stay in San Francisco to lead a wonderful program with PBO in which Scholl sang several of his signature arias from operas by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), as well as Bach’s Cantata No. 170.

The orchestra opened the concert with a different composition by Bach, the Sinfonia to Cantata No. 42. As Wachner lays out in the program notes, he favors an approach to Bach that is no longer purely rational and mathematical, or even numerological, as was de rigueur a few decades ago. Instead, he deliberately emphasizes the sensuality and the religious and human emotions in Bach’s music.

With his theatrical — in a good way — conducting style, Wachner elicited a festive, generous, and free-flowing sound from Philharmonia Baroque that resonated remarkably well in the responsive acoustic environment of San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church. A PBO concert is always a pleasant experience, but this concert showed the ensemble in an even finer musical form than usual.

Philharmonia Baroque photo: Randi Beach


The presence of a truly gifted artist like Andreas Scholl certainly was inspiring. In his extensive solo in Bach’s cantata “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust” (Delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul) after intermission, the magnificent countertenor gave meaning to every syllable, and purpose to every note he sang.

This was even more true in the three Handel arias he performed before intermission: “Va tacito” and “Aure, deh, per pietà” from Giulio Cesare, and “Dove sei” from Rodelinda.

The magnificent Andreas Scholl gave meaning to every syllable, and purpose to every note he sang.

The way in which Scholl deploys his unique instrument is unbelievable. Any attempt to accurately describe and give praise to the splendor of his tone, the depth of his expression, the clarity of his diction, his subtle vibrato, and his delicate use of trills and other little adornments is doomed to fall short.

For each of the Handel arias, Scholl established a specific musical-dramatic environment. In “Va tacito” he engaged in a stately vocal dance with R.J. Kelley’s accompanying part for valveless horn; in “Dove sei” he poignantly embodied the pathos of the maligned king Bertarido, singing a love anthem to his beloved Queen Rodelinda.

Especially in his encore, “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Xerxes, Scholl created such intimacy that he seemed to be singing directly to every individual audience member — which is probably what he was doing. Hearing and seeing him perform was truly a treat.

The party atmosphere stemmed directly from the symbiotic energy between conductor Julian Wachner and the musicians of Philharmonia Baroque, specifically in Telemann’s Concerto in F Major for violin, oboe and two horns, and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1.

Both compositions offered plenty of solo opportunities for PBO’s wonderful wind players, but the Telemann also incorporated two cellos, buzzing like an agitated beehive, plus a very attractive solo violin part.

It was a blast.