Last night at the SFJAZZ Center, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) gave the first San Francisco performance in its 33rd season conducted by its Music Director Nicholas McGegan. In his opening remarks, reviewing the content of the program, McGegan suggested that PBO would be presenting “early jazz,” thus honoring Duke Ellington’s famous conviction that “It’s all music.” Still, things were different in the eighteenth century; and McGegan assembled a delightful variety of Italianate (primarily Neapolitan) selections to celebrate those differences.
The major work on the program was Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s setting of the “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” hymn composed in 1736, the year of his death. This was scored for two high voices accompanied only by strings. Last night’s vocalists were soprano Carolyn Sampson and countertenor David Daniels.
The text of this hymn probably comes from the thirteenth century and has been attributed to both Pope Innocent III and the Franciscan monk Jacopone da Todi. Inspired by the image of Mary at the foot of the Cross watching Jesus die, the text itself is oppressively monotonous. Whoever the author actually was, one gets the impression that he was pursuing his own salvation by wallowing in Mary’s grief.
Fortunately, there is neither monotony nor wallowing in Pergolesi’s setting of the hymn. He dispenses with all the structural details that weigh down the words, particularly the unrelenting trochaic tetrameter, and instead weaves a variegated fabric of ornate phrases realized by alternating sections of accompanied melody with those of interleaving counterpoint. The result is a thoroughly engaging evocation of the spirit of the text that refuses to allow its literary ineptitude to interfere.
In many respects Pergolesi’s interpretation of that spirit embodies a dramatic intensity that is almost operatic, and that sense of opera was clearly shared by both McGegan and his two soloists. Sampson was particularly effective in enhancing Pergolesi’s interpretation of the words through a subtle, but always clear, lexicon of body language. She did not presume to “play the role,” so to speak, of Mary herself (which would have been arrogant). Rather, she conveyed the impression of a bystander whose own worldview had been forever changed by observing Mary. For his part Daniels’ own comportment seemed also to embody that role of an observer, who had now taken it upon himself to narrate the story of what he had experienced. These “personality types” infused each of the solo arias, while the close harmonies of the duo work reinforced that both had experienced the same life-changing episode.
This composition filled the second half of the evening’s program. McGegan chose to balance it by beginning with the overture music from L’Olimpiade, one of Pergolesi’s “real” operas. This was also a relatively late work, first performed in January of 1735; and it was the fifth of the six operas that Pergolesi composed in his short lifetime. Gushing forth with an abundance of energy (again, performed only by strings), this three-movement sinfonia was the perfect complement to the intense sorrow that would dominate the second half of the evening. (It also provided McGegan with the opportunity to welcome the audience to the new PBO season in the highest possible spirits.)
Pergolesi’s overture was then followed by two operatic duets that framed two arias. The composer was George Frideric Handel, and both operas had librettos in Italian. The opening duet-aria pair was from Rodelinda (HWV 19), followed by an aria-duet coupling from Giulio Cesare (HWV 17), both of which had been composed for the Royal Academy of Music in London. The Rodelinda selections were the more poignant, with Daniels singing the role of Bertarido, the usurped King of Lombardy and Sampson singing the title role of his wife. The HWV 17 selections were from the final act and were much more energetic. Sampson sang Cleopatra’s reunion with Cesare aria (“Da tempeste il legno infranto”) with all the wild abandon appropriate to her passionate portrayal; and the execution of the final love duet was downright erotic.
The first half of the program concluded with a G minor concerto for strings by Pergolesi’s teacher, Francesco Durante. Through this concerto one could appreciate the source of Pergolesi’s own energetic rhetoric in the overture that began the evening. The “concerto” element emerged from some splendid solo passages taken primarily by Concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock but sometimes in duet with Principal Second Violin Lisa Weiss. Thematically, the melodic material managed to squeeze considerable diversity out of its self-imposed limitations to stepwise motion; and one came away with the impression that Durante never met a semitone he didn't like.
Taken as a whole, the program provided an excellent balance of high spirits in the first half with the more meditative introspection of the second, promising that the 33rd PBO season will, once again, be both engaging and informative.