I would say that I am a Judge of painting tho not of Musick. Cardinal Ottoboni has left off his entertainments, and Prince Ruspoli is the man who now gives Musick every week to Strangers, where I am sure to fall a Sleep as constantly I go.
There was more than a faint note of self-deprecation underlying Rationalist theologian and philosopher Bishop George Berkeley’s letter to a friend in Ireland. The halls of artistic patronage in Rome had echoed with the sounds of musical pushback for over a decade as enlightened observers like Berkeley were keenly aware. A fundamentalist Pope Clement XI had banned opera in the opening act of the 18th century, driving the Eternal City’s passion for sung drama, if not underground, then at least into limbo. A recent 21-year old arrival from Northern Germany, dazzling keyboard virtuoso and budding opera composer George Frideric Handel was quick to adapt, a pragmatic strategy that would ultimately serve him well a quarter century later as an impresario in London’s West End.
For all Handel’s brilliance as a master of orchestral colour and harmony, it was the human voice that spoke to him with the greatest vibrancy. Opera had brought him to Rome and it was opera that would forever consume him. He had come to sample and absorb the wildly fashionable Italian style. Leading practitioners like Alessandro Scarlatti and Antonio Caldara pointed the way to Handel’s earliest experiments with oratorio as surrogate music theatre.
Then came a commission, one of the young maestro’s first, a full-bodied setting of Psalm 110, Dixit Dominus, for five soloists, full chorus and orchestra to be performed at the Carmelite Church of Santa Maria in Montesanto on the bustling Piazza del Popolo. Arcangelo Corelli would conduct. The completed piece earned Handel instant acclaim. Opera, the ungodly refuge of the profane, was made to serve expressly sacred interests in George Frideric’s intense, animated devotional offering. Had Bishop Berkeley been in attendance in the summer of 1707, he would undoubtedly have sat straight up, wide-awake and astonished in a front row pew.
Concluding its fourth annual Fall Baroque Academy, an eventful 3-day program of lectures, workshops and master classes for advanced students, the University of Toronto Faculty of Music thrilled a capacity audience last Sunday with a stirring performance of Handel’s seminal masterwork. Ringing and impassioned, a double choir and orchestra of students supplemented by an impactful cohort of seasoned soloists, choristers and players filled Trinity College Chapel with musical magic.
An eclectic selection of popular art songs and arias spanning the mid 20th century to the Baroque all dedicated to special guest, noted U of T musicologist Professor Emerita Mary Ann Parker, adorned the first half of the program. Soprano Meredith Hall’s tender rendition of Ned Rorem’s poignant, Early in the Morning, gently partnered by guitarist Bernard Farley enchanted, followed by composer Manning Sherwin’s equally vivid evocation of lost time, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, lyric by Eric Maschwitz. Abstractly referenced programming to an outsider, but irresistible nevertheless.
Unexpectedly stepping from the wings, Head of Early Music Historic Performance, charismatic countertenor Daniel Taylor partnered by Quebec soprano sensation Karina Gauvin contributed a delightful unscheduled piece — Handel’s delicious Scherzano sul tuo volto (“Your face abounds with grace and charm”) from the 18th century London-based maestro’s early Italian-flavoured hit, Rinaldo. Trippingly played by a 15-member period orchestra, a goodly number of players strikingly familiar from both Tafelmusik and Theatre of Early Music gatherings, the endearing little love duet led by violinist Jeanne Lamon quite simply sparkled, setting the stage for a sequence of similarly stellar visitor appearances prior to the main event.
Singing a particularly radiant Dopo notte, (“After a night so bleak”), mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, voiced a bright, joyful interpretation of Ariodante’s triumphant air plucked from Handel’s otherwise darkly desperate gothic drama, trouser role assumed, da capo accents appealingly scattered by the handful.
Returning to the spotlight, Karina Gauvin mesmerized with a spectacularly theatrical, superbly focused performance of Alcina’s shattering Handelian plaint, the sorceress-queen’s bitter cry of defiance and rage, Ah, mio cor (“Ah! My heart!”).
And then, filing into the handsome neo-Gothic nave — the 44 choristers of Dixit Dominus.
The sprawling cantata-like work, based on nine cryptic Bible verses by an unidentified psalmist — presumably the fabled Israelite King David — is equal parts cloudless prophesy and Old Testament thunder.
The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand while I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.
The decidedly bellicose tone of the text set in formal Church Latin belies an overarching air of reverence reinforced by music of towering majesty and zeal. Handel’s repeated use of complex counterpoint, at times bordering on overt fugue, overlaid atop a pulsing, turbulent ground is more than an idle demonstration of compositional genius. The dynamic swirling setting speaks to the very soul of Psalm 110, the interplay of instruments and voices as allegorical as it is emotive — word painting on a grand scale. The universal need for hope and consolation in the face of pressing adversity and peril is powerfully expressed. The Messiah will come. Christ will protect the Faithful.
Commandingly led by Taylor, choir and ensemble excelled, launching the first of nine discrete movements, Dixit Dominus Domine meo, with thoroughly arresting crispness and crunch. Part II, an extended solo for alto, Virgam virtutis, provided marked contrast, sung with great poise and tranquility by Szabó making an engaging return appearance. Handel’s gorgeous anthem for lyric soprano, Tecum principum, brilliantly written in catchy triplets, brought Karina Gauvin gloriously front and centre again. Parts IV and V propelled us to a place of profound certitude, affecting and uplifting, choir and orchestra united and assertive. The Lord has sworn an oath and will not repent it. Punctuated by a flurry of brief, vibrant solos courtesy Schola Cantorum sopranos Lindsay McIntyre and Sinéad White, mezzo Camille Rogers and guest tenor Asitha Tennekoon, Dominus a dextris tuis unleashed its crescendo of righteous fervour, bass-baritone Matthew Li imparting a particularly emphatic note of exclamation. Heathens duly dispatched in a stunning volley of sharp arpeggios and chords in Part VII, chorus driving and explosive. Student sopranos Kayla Ruiz and White gifted us with a shining, silvery rendition of, De torrente, a heartrendingly beautiful duet as moving as it is mysterious. He shall drink from the river of peace on his way, and lift up his head in triumph. Transported to the more familiar sacred geography of the Gloria, the performance soared to its conclusion on repeated upsweeps of harmony, singers and players charged with energy, the chapel filled with gladness.
“The music is beautiful,” noted Herr Handel cunningly disguised as Tafelmusik Chamber Choir Director Ivars Taurins in a surprise pre-performance appearance, “which is understandable since most of it is mine.” Understatement was never George Frideric’s style. But drama and excitement most certainly was as Taylor and company made abundantly clear.
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Above: The Chandos portrait of George Frideric Handel by James Thornhill, c. 1720