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Passionate Tapestry From Musica Pacifica

October 30, 2010

San Francisco Early Music Society

Virtuosity and passion were in abundance at the 20th-anniversary concerts of Musica Pacifica this weekend, under the auspices of the San Francisco Early Music Society. And in a birthday present to both themselves and their audiences, the members of Musica Pacifica were joined by soprano Dominique Labelle in a program titled “Rittrati Dell’Amore,” which featured Labelle in Italian, French, and German cantatas on the subject of love. Musica Pacifica (Judith Linsenberg, recorder; Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin; David Morris, cello and viola da gamba; Charles Sherman, harpsichord) took the stage alone for Corelli’s Trio Sonata Op. 3, No. 12; Sammartini’s Trio Sonata Op. 1, No. 6; and Telemann’s sixth Paris Quartet.

This Baroque ensemble frequently performs works originally written for differing combinations of instruments — as in the Corelli sonata originally written for two violins, or the Sammartini sonata composed for two flutes — generally meeting with success in these substitutions. Linsenberg and Blumenstock are perfectly matched both in technical prowess and in artistry, but their instrumental pairing can create acoustical challenges, as in Saturday’s performance in St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, where the recorder often didn’t have the brightness of sound to carry with the same focus that the violin produced.

This effect is easily ignored in passages in which the two lines play in contrasted styles, but was apparent in extended imitative passages. At times, acoustics got in the way of the violin and gamba, as well, swallowing up some of Blumenstock’s airily light passagework in the Sammartini and Telemann, and many of Morris’ solo roulades in Rameau’s cantata Orphée.

Yet Musica Pacifica consistently rose above these acoustical challenges by bringing to the fore the collaborative and passionate nature of their performing. The duets between Linsenberg and Blumenstock and the trios among them and Morris were like a musical conversation, in which each performer reacted to the other’s melodic and rhythmic statements. Throughout the concert, each player’s virtuosity shone, with frequent displays of fast passagework, always impeccably executed, and with precise rhythms and intonation, creating an exquisite, harmonious tapestry out of all four individual vibrant threads.

Stellar Technique, Compellingly Employed

Labelle’s virtuosity and passion made a perfect complement to Musica Pacifica’s artistry. Her technique is stellar, as is her commitment to the drama of each piece. All the works she sang — Steffani’s Guardati o core, Handel’s Mi palpita il cor, Rameau’s Orphée, and two arias from Bach’s “Wedding Cantata” — were compelling due to her adept shaping of musical lines and motives, coupled with clear diction and expressive facial gestures. Her range of emotional expression made each piece appear heartfelt, whether in its joviality, sagacity, pathos, triumph, or contentment. The cantatas also showed off her superb range, from lush, rich tones in her low register to crisp, clear, and seemingly effortless high notes, both when sustained and in coloratura.

This was a performance in which each piece was brilliantly presented, but nonetheless there were some particularly special moments: the numerous duets between Linsenberg and Blumenstock in the Sammartini; the haunting suspensions, Morris’ high-tessitura gamba solos, and Sherman’s delicate continuo realization in the Telemann; Labelle’s commanding coloratura and ornamental style in the Handel and her dramatic narration in both the Steffani and Rameau; and the pure joy with which the entire group played the second Bach aria.

These are performers who reach far beyond merely creating beautiful sounds: They truly create music by infusing the composers’ notes with energy and passion, and with the elusive-but-essential breath of life.

Kaneez Munjee is a singer, writer, and editor. She holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford University, and specializes in late 17th- and early 18th-century French music.