January 8, 2014

Musica Pacifica Brings Orpheus Into the Light

Musica Pacifica
By Thomas Busse

Musica PacificaIn a concert last Wednesday at Trinity Chapel in Berkeley, the early-music ensemble Musica Pacifica wisely extended a guest appearance invitation to Aaron Sheehan, one of my favorite tenors, especially in French Baroque repertoire. He was in good voice, and the pairing of voice and instruments helped to create a very musical and rewarding evening.

For me, the concert’s centerpiece was Rameau’s cantata Orphée, which relates the familiar Orpheus myth. Similar 17th- and 18th-century French solo cantatas survive in the thousands, often composed by masters such as Brossard, Clerambault, and de La Guerre, three who excelled or even composed in few other genres. Comparing the relative esteem and importance of their time to their sporadic appearance in modern concerts, the French cantata may be the most underperformed genre in all of early music. It is also a favorite genre of mine.

It was therefore satisfying to hear Sheehan and Musica Pacifica do justice to Rameau’s work. Aside from the tenor’s near-perfect vocal mastery of the style, the continuo team (Josh Lee, on gamba, and Charles Sherman, harpsichord) provided text-sensitive support for the singer throughout, an essential skill in a genre depending on rapidly shifting text painting and attention to detail. This genre gives a back seat to the treble instruments, and may be performed on flute or violin as desired, which could be one reason for its disfavor by ensembles. Elizabeth Blumenstock (violin) and Judith Linsenberg (recorder) interjected pointed support when needed, driving the music forward. To be frank, Orphée is not Rameau’s best effort, but I find that a good performance of it is always rewarding.

The French cantata may be the most underperformed genre in all of early music. It is also a favorite genre of mine.

The same social impulses that gave birth to this music also gave rise to courtly balletic posture. In physical presentation, Sheehan’s center of gravity seemed to be too high, giving his body language a swaying, flighty appearance not too unlike that of an anxious bird, especially in coloratura. Often, he just needed to stand still and allow his eye contact with the audience to settle in. Complementing this was Musica Pacifica’s more-pointed English musical style from the violinist and recorder player, which drove the French phraselets where a more-grounded and relaxed styling could have lent the music greater gravitas. One additional option would have been to switch out Josh Lee’s viola da gamba for a basse de violon, which I consider more effective in this repertoire and performer configuration.

More lacking in Sheehan’s approach was an insensitivity to the switch between first and third person, an essential hallmark of French cantatas. Not unlike the Bach Passions, this music assumes different “voices”: one, of a rational speaker relating the story; another, a voice in character experiencing the drama. I would even add a third moralizing voice, which often occurs at the end of a cantata, where the enlightened rational narrator’s voice assumes, through music, an emotional reaction to the events. In Orphée, the lyricist clarifies this switch between voices by marking one aria “gracieux, in the role of Orpheus.” The text of the final aria, about the virtues of patience, is relatively straightforward, yet the music assumes a sense of loss that will be channeled by all but the most unsympathetic performer. Sheehan sang every section the same. Given his vocal excellence in this repertoire, I hope he will gain greater acting abilities to complement his technical excellence.

In the Handel, as well as in all the rest of the evening’s works, Blumenstock and Linsenberg found the right unison balance between their unmatched violin and recorder.

Concluding the concert were two Bach arias, which I felt did not fit in with the other musical selections and were a lost opportunity to tighten up the program. Sheehan showed command of the style in an aria from Cantata 97, but his svelte caressing tone clashed with the crude beer-hall raucousness of an aria from Cantata 62. Far more satisfying and complementary to the concert’s music was Handel’s Look Down, Harmonious Saint, from his Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. Aside from some difficulty with r’s, Sheehan’s English diction was especially clear, and I would welcome hearing him in a full oratorio. In the Handel, as well as in all the rest of the evening’s works, Blumenstock and Linsenberg found the right unison balance between their unmatched violin and recorder.

Also performed was a blazingly fast reading of a set of tambourins (dances in duple time) from a Rameau concerto, which brought the audience to rousing applause; an interesting aria on a ground bass by a minor composer named Michel Lambert; and an unfortunate Couperin keyboard work, played by Linsenberg on recorder, which, aside from tuning problems, also broke the concert’s flow. More rousing were two four-movement works by Telemann, in which the slow movement gave a busy but showy opportunity for Lee on gamba, and a fun closing Allegro, where Blumenstock deftly tossed off repeated notes in dancelike triplet figures so deft as to arouse the envy of anyone who has ever stumbled through a violin method book.

Thomas Busse, www.tbusse.com, is a professional tenor.