A lesser subtext of the current Philharmonia Baroque concert is that the English Baroque musicians were really good at celebrating the world as stage. Whether it was the Purcell’s suite presented in conjunction with performances of The Fairy Queen, the lesser theatrical aspects Handel’s oratorios Saul and Solomon, or Matthew Locke’s music from the Tempest, the program was dominated by theatre music. Even the Concerto No. 5 in G – one of the parts that bore no relationship to theatre – was written by England’s theatre composer Thomas Arne. Only William Laws’ Fantasy à 6, and Handel’s Concerto Gross in D Minor were removed entirely from theatre.
This emphasis on theatre may speak to a larger historical force. John Prescott, Ph.D. noted how the blossoming British Baroque coincided with the Restoration. Perhaps the emphasis on theatre reflects a similar cultural giddiness. Along with these oratorios, this incidental music may be as close the English came to opera at this point – but oh, how it speaks to English theatre – which is more than enough for this listener.
Who could better conduct such a program, but Richard Egarr Egarr became musical director of the Academy of Ancient Music in 2006. Just like the Philharmonia Baroque, the Academy of Ancient Music prides itself on divining the composer’s intentions and performing the music on the instruments and style of the period in which it was composed. The synergy between Egarr and the PBO seems obvious. His running commentary on the music between pieces added enormously to the program. Had he not characterized the Handel concerto grosso as a tutti, I’d still be struggling to hear dominant instruments.
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Egarr’s considerable keyboard skills were on display for the better part of the evening as he conducted from the harpsichord. It’s often easy to overlook the harpsichord as it chugs along in the background, providing the basso continuo that drives the music forward. However, in the hands of Egarr, it becomes variously percussive, mournful, exuberant – all the while pushing the music forward.
Principal March Schachman and Gonzalo Ruiz, both on oboe, tendered compelling performances. Together with principal Danny Bond on bassoon, they were at the front of the stage, opening the Symphony from Saul and dominating the Larghetto of this piece.
The Philharmonia Baroque excels at uncovering unknown or relatively unappreciated gems, such as Williams Lawes. Lawes lived until 43, when he was killed in one of English’s pre-Restoration civil wars. The Consort Sett in Six Parts, No. VII in C Major opens slowly with a simple gesture, before expanding out in surprisingly modern ways. There’s a fair amount of Lawes’ music available in iTunes, which I’ll be exploring in the months to come.
As a final note, over the years, fans of John Prescott have watched him share the stage with his dog Vanessa. This is Vanessa’s last concert. I know everyone wishes her well.
The PBO will be performing in Berkeley and San Francisco and various different venues.
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
4.5 out of 5 stars (Right on the Money)
January 26 – 29