Over the past five years, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra has helped to redefine what an early music orchestra can be. One change the group has introduced in that time, proudly on display during its recently concluded tour to England: the expansion of the orchestra’s mission to include new compositions.
Not many early music ensembles have a composer-in-residence, but PBO named Tarik O’Regan to that post in 2021, and one of his pieces was at the center of “The Garden of Good and Evil,” the orchestra’s tour concert at the Ryedale Festival. This past weekend, I caught up with the American presentation of the program through a livestream from the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival
O’Regan had the interesting idea of sharing this latest commission with his friend, the acclaimed composer Errollyn Wallen. The pairing is interesting musically because O’Regan’s ancestry is Irish and Arabic and part of his youth was spent in North Africa soaking up the music of Algeria and Morocco. Wallen’s background is also multicultural: born in Belize but raised in London. The pair complement each other in a two-part piece called Ancestor, the text for each composer’s section arranged by the other.
The work, written for the PBO strings and countertenor Tim Mead, is adapted from the following text by 19th-century feminist writer Margaret Fuller, which, in turn, was pointed out to the composers by countertenor Reginald Mobley:
Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman. History jeers at the attempts of physiologists to bind great original laws by the forms which flow from them. They make a rule; they say from observation what can and cannot be. In vain! Nature provides exceptions to every rule. She sends women to battle, and sets Hercules spinning; she enables women to bear immense burdens, cold, and frost; she enables the man, who feels maternal love, to nourish his infant like a mother.”
Wallen’s “The Forms” takes off from Fuller’s imagery in a series of very Baroque nature-painting gestures: for instance, rushing scales for “the forms that flow” and block chords for “battle.” But the nontonal music of the orchestral backing is relentless, driving the short piece on in a rhythmic crescendo that seems itself to be a metaphorical response to “solid rushes to fluid.” At just seven minutes, the piece is a jolting, freshening gallop that gets your blood up.
O’Regan, influenced as he is by American minimalism, starts “The Golden Measure” off with a dark drone that becomes a 16th-note ostinato, almost scrubby in its sound because of the lesser tension of Baroque strings. Mead’s voice cut through with steely precision, but the piece begins to grow wings. The theorbo gives offbeat jazz/rock accents, and the groove expands into counterpoint, becoming multilayered, John Adams-like. And then at the point of return, Mead began speaking the lines, working back to singing as uprushing strings led to a rhythmically and dynamically vibrant climax.
The two parts speak to each other in the overall direction of the music while retaining each composer’s individuality. A fascinating experiment. The orchestra was pushed but handled the music’s demands, expertly conducted by David Belkovski, standing in for Music Director Richard Egarr, who was sick.
The orchestra filled out the concert with several Handel arias, Mead soloing, and the orchestra’s traversals of two Handel concerti grossi from the oft-played but still wonderful Opus 6 collection. Mead has a pleasing voice and knows his stuff. He can bring the voice down to piano dynamics without sacrificing tone, showing off fine breath control in the messa di voce opening of “Father of Heaven,” from Judas Maccabaeus. In the da capo section of “Se in fiorito ameno prato,” from Giulio Cesare, he improvised very musical and appropriate ornaments and melodic variations.
Led by stalwart PBO violinist Katherine Kyme, the orchestra took the breadth of Handel’s concerti (the fourth in A Minor and the seventh in B-flat Major) perfectly under Belkovski’s animated direction. The players have this music in their bones, and they perform it with full-bodied sound and rock-solid unanimity.