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Racy Paean to Love

October 2, 2007

Despite its rare appearance in concerts today, it takes little effort to grasp why William Boyce's Solomon enjoyed such extraordinary popularity during the second half of the 18th century. Tuneful airs and imaginative instrumental writing brought accolades from British and Irish audiences alike, and the public clamor for editions of the score made multiple print runs a necessity even decades after its London premiere in 1743.
But surely the audaciously prurient text guaranteed its memorability as well as its controversy. While The Song of Solomon was, as the title suggests, the inspiration for the work, direct references to the libretto's sacred origin are confined to the framing choruses. Instead, Boyce and his librettist, Edward Moore, transformed the material into a pastoral ode to profane lovemaking, dripping with innuendo and barely concealed metaphor.

The most apt way to deliver such a work to an audience today is to exaggerate the playful literary turns of phrase with a similar approach to staging. This was precisely the treatment chosen by San Francisco Renaissance Voices on Saturday at the Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church. Tenor Corey Head, playing a shepherd named simply "He," made his first appearance down the central aisle stroking a stuffed lamb while casting furtive side glances at the audience during Susan Gundunas' opening recitative and air as "She."

In keeping with the creative profusion of racy images that the text offers up, the soloists exchanged comically flirtatious looks and gestures throughout all three parts of the serenata. The action on stage ultimately culminated in Part 3, when the Chorus of Virgins discovered "He," and, in an unambiguous musical homage to Purcell's King Arthur, He was relieved of his frigidness.

Head's light delivery well-suited Boyce's lyrically agile melodies. Gundunas' vibrato, on the other hand, was a bit too heavy for my taste, muddying the occasional quick-moving passagework. The overt drama of her delivery could also work to her advantage, when certain lines of text, such as the concluding tutti passage at "Tall as the cedar he appears and as erect his form he bears" in her final air, became all the more spine-tingling through heightened vocal declamation.

Indeed, despite the impishness of the subject matter, Boyce did not shy away from some technically sophisticated part-writing. The exuberance of SFRV's performance revealed how Solomon is a unique showcase of Boyce's compositional versatility. The leaping fugal motive in the opening double-overture, thickets of imitative polyphony in "Fairest of the virgin throng," and the interrupting arpeggiated tremolos in "Obediently to thy voice I hie," to name some examples, are balanced by more delicate vocal-instrumental duets elsewhere, all of which demonstrate the composer's sensitivity to striking emotional imagery. Among numerous such instances, one particular highlight was Kate van Orden's bassoon obbligato during "Softly rise, O southern breeze," with its extended suspensions folded among the strings' steady, winding pulse.
Tuning Poses Some Challenges
The other instrumentalists in the orchestra were Cara Fry and Alan Paul on oboe, Daria D'Andrea on viola, and the four members of the Galileo Project on violins, cello, and harpsichord. The continuo group provided an assured underpinning to the ensemble, while the violins played with crisp articulation. Able playing by several of the instrumentalists, however, was marred by some serious and at times intractable tuning issues, particularly among the oboists and even the concertmaster.

Not enough time was spent coordinating parts between the oboes and violins, who were often doubling one another, especially in the Sinfonia that opens Part 2. During the tenor and first violin duets in "Balmy sweetness, ever flowing," it was disappointing to hear that tuning issues remained unresolved through each successive repetition. It is hoped that the instrumentalists will have an opportunity to iron out these problems before their final performance next Saturday at Old First Church.

More positively, the ensemble was complemented by a confident, well-balanced chorus. Boyce's opening chorus is of an extraordinarily complex design, colored by chromatic rising harmony during the most stable homophonic passages and rapid fugal sections working through an octave-leaping motive. The choir was assured and practiced, even through the lengthy group trill at the conclusion. The unaccompanied three-part Chorus of Virgins was another highlight, exhibiting a flawless blend of voices. The chorus' fine work is a testament to the exceptional musicality of SFRV's music director, Todd Jolly.

Boyce's numerous anthems, overtures, and symphonies have received a mixed blessing through several recordings in recent years. It is wonderful to be able to hear so many of these pieces performed anew by contemporary ensembles. When some musicians settle for vague articulation and middling tempos, however, they fail to show how thrilling his music can be. Despite certain flaws, San Francisco Renaissance Voices offered a peek at the technically dazzling side of Boyce that other ensembles struggle to produce on record. The performance was often exciting and even eye-opening, and I was pleased to hear this innovative ensemble in performance once again.