Between Carolyn Samson, David Daniels, and an exquisite program, the opening concert of Philharmonia Baroque’s Orchestra’s 33rd season Performing Arts felt like a once in a life time event.
The evening opened with Pergolesi’s Sinfonia from L’Olimpiade. There’s exactly one iTunes song for this – and an infinitesimal scattering on Spotify – and none come even vaguely close to the magic of last night. The Allegro assai e spiritoso was about as close to flying as you can come with both feet still on the ground. Unlike the feeble recordings that don’t do this piece justice, PBO’s version positively crackled with energy. Sitting in the audience, the music had a wonderful layered sound, so you could hear through the powerful strings to the theorbo and harpsichord. The Andante ma poco is rooted in pairs of two-note motifs, each answering the other, leaving you to marvel at the utility of this simple phrase. The third movement, a minuet, returns the piece back to its home key.
However, that was just the beginning… Soprano Carolyn Sampson and countertenor David Daniels performed sections from Handel’s Rodelinda and Giulo Cesare. These de capo arias perfectly showcased Sampson and Daniels’ voices. Sampson has an exquisitely warm voice that brings back the time when you’d swoon at sopranos.. No cheap vocal pyrotechnics here: with effortless control, she delivers the most astounding profusion of notes with vibrato overtones creating little rivulets of sound. For his part, David Daniels delivered a powerful performance – especially in Giulo Cesare, which was his debut role. However, it was even better was to see these two together. Daniels is recognized for stage presence, but he may have met his match in Carolyn Sampson. Both Sampson and Daniels are fun singers. A deliciously punky Cleopatra, Sampson was clearly in her element, with a confidence and panache that could wow any Marc Antony.
Sampson has an exquisitely warm voice that brings back the time when you’d swoon at sopranos.
Concerto for Strings No. 2 in G Minor by Francesco Durante followed. Well selected, this served as a step-down transformer to ready the audience for intermission that I suspect no one really wanted, but was necessary given the heavy work in the latter half, which was devoted to Persolesi’s Stabat Mater. This piece has the opposite energy from the first half – and stage presence of Sampson and Daniels changed to match it. Bad versions of this piece can be a dreary slog through liturgical music – but such was not the case this evening. Sampson and Daniels’ voice meld beautiful, keeping this lithe (if not exactly light), making it easy to appreciate every single note.
The Center for Performing Arts in Atherton has got to be one of the sweetest places in the Bay Area to hear classical music. Every time I’m there, I marvel at how much more I hear – sounds that would be entirely lost in Davies or the temporarily-closed Herbst. During a brief passage of the Stabat Mater, Sampson’s voice becomes hushed – almost a whisper – and she takes her audience with her as she negotiates this passage. The acoustics of this venue make it possible to actually hear this transition.
Pergolesi in Naples will be performed at various venues in the Bay Area through Sunday. It will be following by Music from Imperial Saint Petersburg in November, with guest conductor Steven Fox.