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Philharmonia Baroque serves up eighteenth-century English ribaldry with relish

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The major work on last night’s Philharmonia Baroque program at the SFJAZZ Center was William Boyce’s serenata entitled Solomon. This was not sacred music. Rather, the term “serenata” refers to music for an evening’s diversion. (The German version is “Nachtmusik,” as in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 525 “Eine kleine ….”) Performed by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the Philharmonia Chorale (whose Director is Bruce Lamott), and two vocal soloists (soprano Yulia Van Doren and tenor Thomas Cooley), all under the direction of Nicholas McGegan, the music is based on the Old Testament Song of Songs, rather than anything in the Books of Kings.

Note the phrase “based on,” rather than “a setting of.” I have to quote Lamott directly from the program book, lest, like Anna Russell, I get confused of making things up:

The libretto was provided by a linen merchant and amateur poet named Edward Moore (1712-57), relying on an anonymous paraphrase of the biblical source.

Basically, Moore had a solid command of the iambic metre; and he knew how to make two lines rhyme. Those who know their Old Testament well will affirm that there are, indeed, traces of the Song of Songs in this libretto; but their appearance seems, at best, accidental.

Thus, instead of interpreting a Biblical verses or escalating them to high English literary standards, Boyce served up what amounts to an elaborate mating dance, setting a text whose greatest talent lies in cloaking (not always particularly cleverly) erotic double meanings. If there is a “narrative journey” to the text, it basically follows the path from foreplay (which takes a good deal of time) to consummation. Both soloists seemed perfectly comfortable with taking this approach at face value, reinforcing their vocal flourishes with just the right combination of body language and facial expressions. McGegan also clearly recognized the spirit of things; and, while the first part of this three-part composition tended to repeat things a bit too much, McGegan knew how to bring the entire ensemble into the ribald spirit of things.

The full performance was divided across both halves of the evening. This allowed McGegan to follow the intermission with an instrumental entr’acte in the form of a concerto grosso by John Stanley. This was the second of his Opus 2 collection of six concertos for string ensemble (although McGegan reinforced the continuo with two bassoons, Danny Bond and Kate van Orden). The principal soloist was cellist William Skeen, with some deft duo work with Concertmaster Lisa Weiss and occasional contributions from second violinist Jolianne von Einem.

This was music strongly informed by seventeenth-century Italian tradition. However, Stanley had mastered that tradition to the point of exercising his own inventiveness through it. He was Boyce’s contemporary (born in 1712 after Boyce’s birth in 1711); but he was far more adventurous. As a result, his concerto grosso was a refreshing gust of fresh air following the prolonged foreplay of Solomon’s libretto, letting the audience know that it was nearing the time when the protagonists of that libretto would get down to business.

McGegan had originally planned to use Stanley’s concerto grosso as the overture for the entire evening. However, he rearranged the order to honor the memory of Nelson Mandela. Thus, the program began with the seven anthems that William Croft prepared to set the prayers for a burial service in the Book of Common Prayer. These were sung by the Philharmonia Chorale with the only instrumental support coming from the continuo of Skeen’s cello, Kristin Zoernig on bass, and Hanneke van Proosdij on organ.

In contrast to the works of Boyce and Stanley, this was music intended primarily to provide a devout account of the words. The settings were almost entirely homophonic, all delivered in a common rhetoric as if to bind each prayer to its successor. The one break with this relatively consistent flow came when Croft chose to appropriate Henry Purcell’s setting of “Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of hearts.” Purcell had composed this for the funeral of Queen Mary, and it continues to astound in the originality of both counterpoint and harmonic progression. Croft introduced Purcell’s voice, so to speak, to honor that composer’s memory, which seemed a fitting gesture for the memorial rhetoric of the entire service. McGegan and the Philharmonia Chorale then effectively drew upon that rhetoric at a time when people around the world are remembering how much Mandela had achieved in his full life.

Finally, it is worth observing that, once again, McGegan performed in the SFJAZZ Center without any amplification. As had been the case at this season’s opening concert, the compositional details of the entire repertoire were well served by the space’s dry acoustic qualities. This was particularly true of the nuanced approaches to diction taken by both Van Doren and Cooley, far more stunning than just about anything a jazz singer could have done with a microphone.

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