December 7, 2013

A Moving Baroque Tribute to Nelson Mandela

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
By Niels Swinkels

Philharmonia Baroque OrchestraIt is unlikely that Nelson Mandela ever considered that he would influence the program of a Baroque music concert, yet to honor the passing, last Thursday, of this legendary South African statesman, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s Music Director Nicholas McGegan made an appropriate last-minute change and opened the orchestra’s latest concert series, titled “Solomon in London,” with the Burial Service by English composer William Croft (1678–1727), instead of John Stanley’s Concerto for Strings in B Minor.

Written for the royal funeral of either Prince George of Denmark (in 1708) or his wife, Queen Anne (1714), Croft’s Burial Service has since been used for every state funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, to lay to rest such famous British dignitaries as Lord Nelson (1806), the Duke of Wellington (1852), Winston Churchill (1965), Princess Diana (1997), and Margaret Thatcher (April 2013).

Accompanied by a beautifully blending continuo of organ, cello, and double bass, the singers of the Philharmonia Chorale gave a crisply enunciated, stirringly inspirational rendering of Croft’s setting of seven “funeral sentences” from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

For this Burial Service, Croft took inspiration from the starkness and simplicity of Anglican chant, as well as from his illustrious predecessor Henry Purcell, of whom he included an entire verse (“Thou knowest, Lord”).

Whether or not Mandela’s memory actually inspired the Chorale’s performance, it was wonderfully sung.

Croft created what could be described as a “harmonized recitativo” that sounds uniquely English, with melodic lines and brief polyphonic outbursts whose only function is to celebrate and emphasize the messages contained in the text, following the flow of the sentences and the rhythm of the words very naturally.

Whether or not Mandela’s memory actually inspired the Chorale’s performance, it was wonderfully sung, from the opening “I am the resurrection and the life” to the closing, protracted “Amen.”

Of an entirely different nature was Solomon, a Serenata, by William Boyce (1711–1779). With a libretto that is based on the Old Testament’s “Song of Solomon” (also known as “Song of Songs”), it is a pastoral cantata for soprano and tenor, chorus and orchestra in which two lovers, “he” and “she,” express their love for each other in terms that must have been rather explicit for a 1740s English audience.

Soprano Yulia van Doren, as the female protagonist in Solomon, made it obvious that something very titillating was happening. She played with every word and every subtlety in the text, and sprinkled her singing with all kinds of excited little trills and sighs.

It was the Philharmonia Chorale, expertly prepared by Director Bruce Lamott, that particularly impressed by its effortless transitioning.

Tenor Thomas Cooley responded in kind, but even if he and Van Doren had not put their considerable dramatic talents behind their singing, there would have been more than enough sensuality and intimacy simply emanating from Boyce’s voluptuous music and the way in which, for instance, he pairs orchestral soloists (violin, cello, bassoon, flute) with the “she” and “he” characters. It was like a somewhat-naughty theme party, with ringmaster Nicholas McGegan allowing it all to happen around him. Without short-changing the orchestra, which showed its excellence throughout, it was the Philharmonia Chorale, expertly prepared by Director Bruce Lamott, that particularly impressed by its effortless transitioning from the Burial Service, with its more subdued musical imagery, to the exuberant oratorio style of Solomon.

Incidentally, Lamott is also responsible for the more than excellent program notes to Solomon in London, which made this concert experience even more rewarding and enjoyable.

Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.