Last night St. Mark’s Lutheran Church saw the conclusion of the Voices of Music 2015–2016 Concert Series with the presentation of a program entitled The Art of the Countertenor. This was the latest “art of the …” concert to be presented, most of which feature extended solo work by visiting performers, although The Art of the Recorder was presented by Voices of Music co-Director Hanneke van Proosdij. Last night’s soloist was the visiting British countertenor Christopher Lowrey.
Almost all of the selections on the program involved the “usual suspects” of eighteenth-century composers. Well over half of the selections were allocated to Antonio Vivaldi and George Frideric Handel, along with one cantata aria by Johann Sebastian Bach. The least familiar offering was the “lament” motet “Ach, dass ich wassers gnug hätte” (O, that I had enough water), which may have been by Sebastian’s grandfather’s brother Heinrich but was attributed to Heinrich’s son, Johann Christoph in a catalog compiled by Sebastian’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. The vocal selections alternated with concerto offerings by Vivaldi, Handel, and Arcangelo Corelli, featuring solo work by violinists Kati Kyme and Carla Moore and cellist Elisabeth Reed.
Lowrey gave a splendid account of all of his selections. He brought a keen sense of the dramatic motivations behind each of his opera selections, and his capacity for such insights informed his sacred music selections equally effectively. The most familiar offering was “Ombra mai fu” (never was a shade). This is the aria that begins Handel’s HWV 40 opera Serse, sung by the protagonist (Xerxes I of Persia) to the shade of his favorite plane tree. This is not the sort of “love song” one expects in opera; but the aria takes on special significance in the context of hostile Persian deserts. Handel clearly appreciated that significance, and Lowrey’s approach was as convincing as that of the lullaby that was his first Vivaldi selection, “Mentre dormi” (while you sleep) from the RV 725 opera L’Olimpiade.
For sheer Baroque spectacle, however, nothing beats a no-holds-barred revenge aria. Lowrey saved this genre for his closing selection, “Barbaro traditor” (barbarous traitor) from Vivaldi’s RV 703 opera Bajazet. Lowrey was clearly enough of a showman to know how to go out with a bang. He served up just the right mix of dramatic intensity and technical dexterity, reminding those who needed to be reminded of just how much full-bodied substance can be found in the countertenor repertoire.
There was also some indication that the instrumental selections were intended to complement Lowrey’s performances by offering their own instances of dramatic rhetoric. There is sometimes a tendency to think of the Baroque as a period during which notes would flow out in long and steady streams (thing of all the music in Sebastian Bach’s pedagogical Clavier-Übung publications), suggesting that composers such as Joseph Haydn made “revolutionary” use of full-stop rests. However, such rests frequently served dramatic needs in opera scores; and their rhetorical impact can be found frequently in the operas of both Vivaldi and Handel. Thus, it should be no surprise that those composers should apply similar techniques in instrumental music, particularly when it involves interplay between one or more concerto soloists and an ensemble.
As a result there was more than enough drama to go around in last night’s selections by Handel (the Opus 6, Number 2 concerto grosso in G major) and Vivaldi (the Opus 3, Number 8 concerto for two violins in A minor). The Corelli selection (Opus 6, Number 11 in B-flat major) opened the program; and the dramatic tropes were so abundant that the music was practically a mini-opera unto itself. Each of these selections had its own rhetorical strategy for the interplay of soloists and ensemble, and the three soloists for the evening always effectively matched their technical dexterity with a sense of the dramatic tension behind that interplay.
The result was a well-integrated and satisfyingly performed account of the many different ways in which music of the seventeenth century was informed by dramatic implications.