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Smokin' Baroque

October 31, 2011

I spent Saturday doing something I've never done before: performing a section from an opera accompanied by an instrumental ensemble. We're not talking Wagner at The Met, mind you: I was singing the part of a dopy, lovelorn shepherd in a workshop of a little-known Serenata (a mini opera of the late 17th century) by Severo de Luca, a composer from Scarlatti's circle in Naples. But it was a big deal for someone who spends most of her life writing about and interviewing great singers and standing in the rank and file of a chorus. Besides the fact that I had to perform in front of about 40 people, I was also backed up by a Baroque string ensemble, led by none other than Nicholas McGegan, the artistic director of The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, one of the country's premier Baroque music outfits. As a result, it was quite a scary -- albeit deeply fulfilling -- experience.

What I noticed quickly however, is how much difference it makes singing with a large group of instruments as opposed to a cappella or with a solo piano. You sort of feel carried along by them, as if surfing on a wave. I presumed that it would take a lot more effort to make oneself heard above a group of instruments. But I was surprised to discover that the sound of the strings and harpsichord pushed me along and actually helped me to project. The whole thing felt marvelously effortless. I had a blast. I want to do it again.

In other news, not unrelated: I spent Sunday afternoon in the company of some of the finest Baroque musicians in the world -- the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and the Apollo's Fire Baroque Orchestra, a spellbinding period ensemble led by the fiery-tressed harpsichordist Jeannette Sorrell and based out of Cleveland. The concert happened under the auspices of Cal Performances at Hertz Hall on the Berkeley campus and it was well worth the trek (my fourth to the East Bay in one week from Palo Alto where I am currently stationed on a journalism fellowship at Stanford.)

Appollo's Fire deserves its name: I have never before encountered a Baroque group (or any other classically-trained ensemble for that matter) where the players attack their music with so much vigor and excitement. As with a concert I saw the musicians perform in New York in 2006 (I think it was their New York debut,) they had me on the edge of my seat throughout the program, which consisted of a variety of string pieces and arias by Handel and Vivaldi.

The collaboration with Jaroussky, a young singer of equal temperament, is a natural one and the ensemble and singer are currently exploring their mutual energy on a tour around the country and abroad. There was tantalizing communication between the vocalist and instrumentalists. They seemed to be completely engaged with one another as well as the audience.

Jaroussky has a similar brightness and technical mastery to his voice as Cecelia Bartoli. But while Bartoli tends to set my teeth on edge with a sound that's half heavy artillery and half chipmunk on steroids, Jaroussky's tone is smoother and glides more fluidly. It's less hard on the ears, even in the florid bravura runs of a difficult Handel aria. I only wish the singer would relax his right arm and hand. They remained so crooked and tense throughout almost the entire performance that I wondered if the performer was contending some kind of physical disability.

Another thing that I loved about the recital was the choice of music. I was, like many audience members in the packed hall, unfamiliar with Vivaldi's operatic repertoire before I heard Apollo's Fire and Jaroussky play and sing it. Now I want to get my hands on every recording of Catone in Utica, Giustino and Tito Manlio I can find.

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