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Handel comes to the 2014 American Bach Soloists Festival

Jeffrey Thomas conducting an instrumental rehearsal of HWV 55
Jeffrey Thomas conducting an instrumental rehearsal of HWV 55courtesy of the American Bach Soloists

Last night the San Francisco Conservatory of Music hosted the first performance of the music of George Frideric Handel to be given in the concert series of this summer’s American Bach Soloists (ABS) Festival. With the exception of a Handel cantata to be sung tonight at Mary Wilson’s Distinguished Artist Series recital, it was also the only performance of Handel. However, what lacked in numbers was compensated by duration. Last night’s program was devoted entirely to HWV 55, the pastoral ode in three parts L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.

The label “pastoral” is often used to evoke a literary form in which description prevails over narrative. The libretto prepared for Handel drew upon two well-known poems that John Milton wrote in his early twenties as a contrasting pair. “L’Allegro” is a description of “joyful man,” while “Il Penseroso” portrays “contemplative man,” the latter involving frequent references to melancholy. James Harris arranged and adapted the texts as a series of recitatives and airs, but the arrangement involved interleaving passages from the two Milton poems. Thus, the author of the Wikipedia page for this composition describes the first two parts as a “dramatic dialog between Milton’s poems.” For the third part, Handel requested Charles Jennens (best known for sampling and assembling the Biblical passages that form the libretto of HWV 56 Messiah) to create the poem “Il Moderato,” advocating moderation as a “middle way” between Milton’s two extreme moods. Jennens, in turn, concluded the text for the final part with “As steals the morn,” adapted from the first scene of the final act of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Taken as a whole, then, HWV 55 amounts to an extended concert program consisting primarily of solo vocal work with occasional choral responses to a text sung by a soloist. In last night’s performance each of the poems had its own set of soloists. The airs for “L’Allegro” were sung by soprano Anna Gorbachyova, tenor Michael Jankosky, and bass Benjamin Kazez. The “Il Penseroso” soloists were soprano Hailey Fuqua, alto Agnes Vojtko, and tenor Jason Rylander. Finally, soprano Fiona Gillespie, tenor Corey Shotwell, and bass David Rugger presented the solos for “Il Moderato.” ABS Artistic Director conducted the American Bach Choir and the ABS Academy Orchestra with Academy students playing alongside members of the faculty.

The alternation of the two extremes during the first two parts of HWV 55 was, for the most part, effective, even if the division of the two parts had to do more with Handel’s anticipation of the patience of his audience, rather than any dramatic need for an extended pause. The individual selections tended to be brief, allowing Milton to say his piece through clearly conceived vocal lines with string accompaniment. Additional instruments were used sparingly, often to enhance a particular descriptive effect in the text. (The biggest surprise was the use of a glockenspiel for “Or let the merry bells ring round” from “L’Allegro,” all the more interesting because music suggests that, as a result of living in England, Handel had picked up a bit of knowledge about the permutations of change ringing.)

In the midst of these many shorter selections, the soprano air “Sweet bird, that shun’st the noise of folly” from “Il Penseroso” stood out for its significantly extended duration. This was basically a duo for soprano (Fuqua) and flute (Joshua Romatowski). It made for one of those extraordinary listening experiences in which one’s sense of “inner time” seems to stand still, however steadily the physical clock may keep ticking. One is aware only of the gradual advance of Milton’s words, each given its own nuanced shading through Fuqua’s delivery, which would alternate, phrase by phrase, with “extended commentary from the bird,” elegantly shaped by Romatowski.

While Fuqua’s solo may have been most memorable for the profundity of its prolongation, all nine of the vocal soloists approached their work with a clear understanding of the moods they were required to depict. Each of the “L’Allegro” soloists brought an individual take on what made for a “happy” delivery, while there tended to be a bit less differentiation within the two other groups. The choral responses took place primarily in “L’Allegro,” vigorously reinforcing the texts for solo voice, particularly those sung by Jankosky and Kazez.

The overall result was a solid and highly satisfying account of Handel’s ambitious undertaking to set the words of one of England’s major poets.