If you’re really lucky, you’ll stumble upon something so completely astounding, you’ll be amazed that you’d been oblivious to it all along. It’s all the more astounding when you find your friends and neighbors in the audience – and you finally get a clue to something that had been a great secret. The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra has performed locally since 1981. I clearly have some catching up to do.
The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (aka PBO) is a period instrument orchestra. Of the sixteen violins, one was made in 1580, two were made in the late 1600’s, ten were made in the seventeen hundreds, and the remaining six were new instruments crafted after original masterpiece instruments. The balance of orchestra instruments was similarly dated. I always enjoyed the intricacies of baroque music, but found it brittle; substituting cleverness for depth. Little did I realize that my dismissal had more to do with the instruments rather than the music.
From the minute, musical director Nicholas McGegan raised his baton, it was obvious that this was something very, very different than I’d ever heard before.
Last night, the PBO performed Orlando’s Madness, a 1733 opera that revisited French medieval Roland stories with a libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece.
I lack the technical vocabulary to begin to describe the vocal gymnastics of the five vocalists so I won’t pretend to analyze what I heard. Suffice to say I was stunned and surprised at every turn, as I tried to locate myself in the center of the music.
I left the theatre in an odd state of grace as I marveled at the newness of finding something so exquisitely beautiful on a random Tuesday night
In a pre-concert talk, musicologist John Prescott explained that each aria is repeated so as to provide the vocalist the chance to further embellish their original performance. I do not know how these musicians do what they do, but their voices transcended anything that I imaged to be humanly possible. Sopranos Dominique Labelle and Susanne Rydén, mezzo-soprano Diana Moore, bass-baritone Wolf-Matthias Friedrich, and countertenor William Towers kept the audience in their palms for an entire three and a half hour performance.
I left the theatre in an odd state of grace as I marveled at the newness of finding something so exquisitely beautiful on a random Tuesday night. While this is their last performance of Orlando, Loni better start devising new recipes for cheap eats, as I’ve purchased tickets for their 2010-2011 season.
The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra will be performing at its regular venues in San Francisco, Berkeley, Atherton and Walnut Creek. Consult their web site for ticket information.