Thompson concert: Philomel, Baird offer diverse pleasures

Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall was the site of the first Thompson Concert of the year, which took place Friday, October 29. Soprano Julianne Baird and Philomel – an ensemble consisting of flutist Elisa Berardi, violinists Nancy Wilson and David Myford, cellist Vivian Barton and harpsichordist Bruce Bekker – presented a generally wonderful performance to the crowd of predominantly middle aged to elderly couples.

They played selections by J.S. Bach, Handel, Monteverdi, Vivaldi and Fransesco Mancini, alternating between instrumentals and cantatas, motets and arias that showcased the talented Ms. Baird. Although the first piece, Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor, took until the second movement to become engaging, only the Mancini piece, a stilted and predictable Concerto in F Major, disappointed. The rest of the concert was great.

For me the greatest joy, or at least the most unexpected joy, of the evening was the high quality of the vocal performances. It’s simple to stereotype operatic music of the period as a series of tiresome static high pitched shrieks set to uninspiring basso continuo that only serves to provide a marginal sense of rhythm.

But these vocal pieces covered a large emotional range, from rage and love to praise of God to praise of everyone’s favorite early morning pick-me-up (not heroin: coffee). In each piece, the vocal line and its accompaniment reflected the given context, and Ms. Baird’s voice buoyed the entire performance, in tearful lyricism, wild ecstasy and homicidal rage (this concert is starting to sound interesting, huh?).

All of the vocal performances were strong, but the first of the evening, Handel’s cantata “Armida abandoned,” left a particularly powerful mark. It dramatizes a woman just abandoned by her lover, who is vacillating between love and her desire for revenge. As a fitting end to the piece, the protagonist turns to God to assuage her pain, surrendering herself with beautiful simplicity. In the throes of love the music is sublime, punctuating beautiful melodies with torrid phrases. In wrath it becomes dynamic, giving wings to her rage.

The comic highlight of the evening, and proof that even towering geniuses of the Western tradition have senses of humor, was an aria from Bach’s Cantata 22, his coffee cantata. Yes, the cantata is an ode to coffee. Just imagine these lyrics, translated back into German, sung happily to the accompaniment of flute, harpsichord and cello, the music unfolding in a way that is so wonderfully Bach’s.

Oh, coffee tastes so good!

Lovelier than a thousand kisses,

Smoother than sweet-wine.

Coffee, coffee, coffee I must have,

And whenever someone wants to please me,

Why, just pour me a cupful!

The members of Philomel were also excellent. As is important in many of the pieces, particularly the Bach arias, the instruments performed duets with the vocalist. In many pieces they set the emotional tone into which the singer would then move.

Although Philomel didn’t quite gel on its first pair of instrumental works, the third and final instrumental, Vivaldi’s Trio in D minor, was riveting. The piece is a series of dramatic variations on a single melody: a simple premise, but one that provided a fun result.