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May 8, 2009

When one of the country's top Baroque music orchestras puts on a concert of Handel blockbusters in the most imposing church in town with a live laser display and drum corps outfitted in Georgian military regalia, what's the outcome? Spectacular bordering on tacky, I imagined, when I first read the press release for American Bach Soloists' Fireworks Celebration at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral.

The actual event, which I witnessed yesterday evening, was contrastingly a weirdly subdued affair, even though the Cathedral was packed out. I'm in two minds about how much I enjoyed it.

The first half of the concert, in which the Grace Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys performed the coronation anthem Zadok, the Priest and Laudate, pueri, Dominus (with soprano Abigail Haynes Lennox as soloist), felt like it was coming at us through a thick woolly sock. The sound quality was bizarre. I've never experienced the like in Grace Cathedral. I was sitting near the front of the church and could barely hear the orchestra, choir and soloist. It sounded like mush. I can't imagine what the acoustic must have been like at the back of the room.

The second half of the concert fared considerably better, sonically-speaking. Someone must have flicked a switch somewhere. ABS' performance of Water Music Suites No 2 in D Major and No 3 in G Major was crisp and lilting. The Country Dance movements were particularly rambunctious with the bass strings giving the music an rugged, earthy foundation. Elsewhere, it was such a pleasure to hear the recorder trilling high above the strings. Debra Nagy's playing sweetened the texture considerably.

The laser- and drum-loaded grand finale performance of Music for the Royal Fireworks was a lot of fun, but somehow less spectacular than I was expecting it to be. The laser show created by Lighting Systems Design was sensitive to the changing mood of the music. In the loud, rambunctious movements, explosions of color played across the big, star-like screen at the front of the church above the orchestra. In the more lyrical places, the lights whizzed quietly across the screen like shooting stars. But after a while, the light show became a bit predictable and underwhelming. Only in the last movement, when the lighting designers made use of four thong-shaped side screens suspended to the left and right of the orchestra, did I feel like I was being enshrouded in light and sound. As for the drummers, they did a fine job. But, again, the sound levels weren't quite right: the noise from the drums sometimes drowned out the rest of the orchestra. And the church was so dark that we weren't able to see the drummers' lovely Georgian costumes with their tri-cornered hats and shiny brass buttons.

Still, I love the idea of mixing Handel with lasers -- it's interesting to see old and new worlds collide and cooperate in this kind of way. With a bit of tweaking, perhaps ABS should try the experiment again some day.


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