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‘Distinguished artist’ Mary Wilson sings cantatas by Handel, Bach, and Vivaldi

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Last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, soprano Mary Wilson was the featured artist in the Distinguished Artist Series concert presented as part of the American Bach Soloists (ABS) Festival 2014. She prepared a program of three cantatas. The first two were secular, composed by George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach, respectively, and sung in Italian. The third was composed by Antonio Vivaldi when he was serving as interim maestro di coro (chorus master) during his tenure in the music school at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice. It was a setting of an anonymous Latin text to be inserted among the proper liturgical events of a service. Each pair of vocal compositions was separated by a concerto from Vivaldi’s Opus 3 collection, L’Estro armonico (harmonic inspiration), the first of which was performed in Bach’s transcription as a harpsichord solo.

Handel’s HWV 170 cantata, Tra le fiamme (among the flames), was composed during the time he spent in Rome between 1706 and 1710. He had traveled to Italy to cultivate his skills in writing operas only to discover that opera was under a papal ban in Rome. Fortunately, Handel was able to cultivate friends within the church authority, one of whom was Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, who provided Handel with librettos. Tra le fiamme is a moralistic meditation on the myth of Daedalus and Icarus concluding:

The man, born to ascend to heaven, leaves his thoughts on the ground, and then has flight with pretend wings, that he was not born with.

Handel’s score couples vocal virtuosity with a series of highly demanding passages for gamba, performed agilely last night by Kenneth Slowik. The rest of the instrumental ensemble consisted of two recorders (Louise Carslake and Debra Nagy, who doubled on oboe for one of the arias), two violins (Robert Mealy and Elizabeth Blumenstock), and a continuo performed last night by William Skeen on cello, Steven Lehning on violone, and Corey Jamason on harpsichord.

The structure is a straightforward alternation of arias and recitatives with the opening aria also providing the conclusion. Wilson’s performance was one of deft clarity that skillfully transcended the religious pedantry of the text. This made an engaging coupling with Slowik’s virtuoso turns, allowing the listener to enjoy Handel’s capacity for inventiveness without being unduly distracted by an excess of pontification.

Wilson’s selection of Bach’s BWV 209 cantata, Non sa che sia dolore (he does not know what sorrow is), meant that this summer’s Festival accounted for all of the vocal music that Bach composed for Italian texts. The only other such composition was performed at the beginning of the Festival on Saturday, July 12, the BWV 203 cantata Amore traditore (traitorous love). Like BWV 203, BWV 209 is almost a “double concerto,” this time for flute (Sandra Miller) and soprano. Indeed, the opening Sinfonia movement of BWV 209 could have easily found itself in a flute concerto. However, while the music of BWV 203 tended to alternate between harpsichord and baritone, the arias of BWV 209 involved some delightful interleaving of the two solo lines. The circumstances behind BWV 209, on the other hand, seemed to have been rather mundane: the return of a student at Leipzig University to his home town of Ansbach (explicitly mentioned in the text of unknown authorship), making for a setting much more affable than the amorous frustrations of BWV 203.

In the Vivaldi cantata, In furore iustissimae irae (in the furor of your most just wrath), on the other hand, all virtuosity goes to the soprano, complete with a dazzling melismatic treatment of the final “Alleluia.” This cantata may have been composed to supplement a particular church service; but Vivaldi provided the vocalist with every possible opportunity to strut her stuff with the same flamboyant display of a violinist playing one of his concertos. Indeed, this cantata was practically a concerto, since it was the only selection on the program that required Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas to conduct a small orchestra (all strings except for Jamason’s keyboard work on organ). Wilson dazzlingly jumped through all the hoops Vivaldi set for her, bringing the entire program to a stunning conclusion.

Virtuosity was also on abundant display in the instrumental selections. The first of these was given over entirely to Jamason performing Bach’s transcription of the ninth concerto from Vivaldi’s Opus 3 collection (BWV 972 in D major). The second was the tenth concerto in Opus 3, the last of the three composed for four solo violin parts. Blumenstock and Mealy were joined by Katherine Kyme and Noah Strick for these solo parts. Their joint performance made for an engaging reminder that music makers in the eighteenth century were as capable of jamming as any of the jazz masters of the twentieth century. Indeed, listening to the give-and-take among these four violinists revived fond memories of a 2012 ABS program in which Bach’s BWV 1064r concerto for three violins in D major was delivered with the same dynamic vigor of the “tenor conclave” of saxophonists Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims.

The evening then concluded with a return to Handel as Wilson took two encores, both arias from his operas (the ones the Pope would not let him compose). The first of these was “Vezzi, lusinghe, e brio,” Ginevra’s arioso in the first scene of Ariodante (HWV 33), in which she is admiring her jewels. This was followed by “Piangerò la sorte mia” (I shall mourn my fate), which Cleopatra sings at the beginning of the final act of Giulio Cesare (HWV 17), when she thinks that Cesar has died in his battle with Tolomeo’s army. Through these two arias, those of us on audience side could appreciate the complementing facets of light and darkness in the stunning qualities of Wilson’s voice.

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