21 February 2014

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Baroque Arias by R. Broschi, N. Porpora, & A. Vivaldi and Instrumental Music by J.C. Bach, G.F Händel, & F.J. Haydn – V. Genaux, CSO, N. McGegan (Symphony Hall, Chicago, IL; 18 Feb 2014)

Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux and conductor Nicholas McGegan with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 18 February 2014 [Photo by the Author]

JOHANN CHRISTIAN BACH (1735 – 1782): Symphony in G Minor, Op. 6, No. 6; RICCARDO BROSCHI (circa 1698 – 1756): ‘Qual guerriero in campo armato’ from Idaspe; GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Concerto grosso in G Major, Op. 6, No. 1 (HWV 319); FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN (1732 – 1809): Symphony No. 100 in G Major, Hob. I/100 (Military); NICOLA PORPORA (1686 – 1768): ‘Oh volesser gli Dei…Dolci, freschi aurette’ from Polifemo and ‘Or la nube procellosa’ (composed for performance in Johann Adolf Hasse’s Artaserse); and ANTONIO VIVALDI (1678 – 1741): ‘Alma oppressa da sorte crudele’ from La fida ninfa, RV 714; Vivica Genaux, mezzo-soprano; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord continuo; Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Nicholas McGegan [Symphony Hall, Chicago, Illinois, USA; Tuesday, 18 February 2014]

In the musical life of any thoughtful performer, a début with one of the world’s greatest orchestras is an occasion of tremendous importance, personally and professionally. In the rarest of instances, it is also an extraordinary occasion for the audience fortunate enough to witness it. Thus, by all accounts, was the case with Alaska-born mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux’s début with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, 13 February. The programme—featuring four of the most daunting bravura arias of the Eighteenth Century—was repeated on the evening of Tuesday, 18 February, and her second appearance with the CSO found Ms. Genaux at the zenith of her powers both as a vocalist and as a vibrant interpreter of theatrically heightened emotions in sound, even in concert. Under the marvelously stylish direction of Nicholas McGegan, the concert offered appealing performances of repertory that, with the exception of Haydn’s Symphony No. 100, was new to the CSO, and the only regrettable aspect of the evening was that there were not more ears in Symphony Hall to succumb to the spells cast by this coven of gifted musicians.

Music Director of the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (with which Ms. Genaux will sing the rôle of Vagaus in Vivaldi’s oratorio Juditha triumphans in April) since 1985, Maestro McGegan is one of the world’s preeminent specialists in historically-informed practices, and he brought a lifetime’s experience to the differing idioms of this CSO programme. His work with the CSO players—reduced in numbers for this performance, naturally—produced articulation that was mostly crisp and stylistically appropriate. In the performance of Händel’s G-Major Concerto grosso that opened the concert, string playing was clean and light, avoiding the elephantine sounds artlessly blasted in Händel’s music by many modern orchestras. Associate Concertmaster Stephanie Jeong made particularly admirable efforts at adapting her technique to the delicate requirements of Baroque playing, and her colleagues noticeably endeavored to follow her example. Still, there were disparities among the sections, with the lower strings occasionally failing to match the accomplishments of the violins and oboes in terms of apposite phrasing. An overabundance of vibrato, especially from the cellos, intermittently obscured harmonic progressions and threatened to diminish the brilliance of the continuo playing by harpsichordist Jory Vinikour, unaccountably uncredited in CSO’s otherwise informative programme notes. Symphony Hall’s acoustics did not permit full appreciation of the effects of the differentiation between the concertino and ripieno, but contrapuntal passages were coherently executed. The subtle eloquence of the third movement (Adagio) was underpinned inventively by Mr. Vinikour’s continuo, enabling an expressive account of Händel’s lyrical subjects. The broadly-conceived final gigue was played expansively but with meticulous care for its precise rhythms, and here, too, Mr. Vinikour’s playing provided unmistakable energy and infusions of proper Baroque sophistication.

Written sometime in the 1760s, after its composer’s arrival in London in pursuit of a career in the British capital’s opera-friendly theatres, Johann Christian Bach’s Sinfonia in G Minor is a seminal work, one of the earliest surviving concert pieces in G Minor and an obvious influence on the seventeen-year-old Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 (K. 183/173b) in the same key, composed in 1773. Indeed, the significance of the London Bach’s Sinfonia in G Minor is more extensive than the work itself, which is only fifteen or so minutes in duration [longer, admittedly, than Händel’s G-Major Concerto grosso]. Both in its basic structure, which makes educated use of Classical sonata form, and it its stylistic anticipations of early Romanticism, the Sinfonia is a logical companion to Haydn’s ‘Military’ Symphony. Supplemented by a pair of horns, superbly played, the strings and oboes again strove for a manner of playing appropriate to the music. There was none of the all-purpose sawing and honking that undermines many modern-instrument orchestras’ attempts at performing pre-1775 repertory, and the CSO players brought great contrast to the bold outer movements and the subdued but fervent second movement. Vibrato was less obtrusive in Bach’s music than in Händel’s, but Mr. Vinikour’s continuo playing again supplied welcome doses of period polish. In both the Händel and the Bach works, Maestro McGegan set tempi that were quick after the manner of accepted wisdom about meters in the Eighteenth Century but employed subtle rubato to heighten the impact of tonal resolutions in cadences.

Prior to these concerts, Haydn’s ‘Military’ Symphony was last played by the CSO in 1990. It is unlikely, though, that any conductor who presided over past CSO performances brought as much understanding of the music and sheer fun as Maestro McGegan exhibited in his conducting of the score. The ‘Military’ is not as melodically memorable as several of Haydn’s other symphonies, but the cumulative effect of the score is unforgettable. The opening movement is one of Haydn’s most inventive exercises in symphonic form, the motivic development reminiscent of the intelligence the composer displayed in his oratorios, and Maestro McGegan and the CSO players—now also including flutes, trumpets, and percussion—collaborated in a performance of wit and grace. Clarinets, cymbals, triangle, and bass drum joined the party in the second movement, another gem of Haydn’s imagination, and the CSO’s performance throbbed with excitement, not least in the contributions by the trumpets, timpani, and ‘Janissary’ elements that earned the symphony its martial epithet. After the clanging outbursts of the second movement, the third movement, a conventional minuet, seems somewhat muted, but a hallmark of Haydn’s genius is that way in which he, like Brahms, could work within the boundaries of traditions but produce music that transcends them. Maestro McGegan conducted with insightful attention to every transition of key and tempo, the technique of the music-making firmly, rightly rooted in the Eighteenth Century but the spirit of the performance soaring into the Nineteenth. In the final movement, the uninhibited bombast of the CSO’s playing was galvanizing, and the sweep of Maestro McGegan’s conducting was exhilarating. His performance revealed that Maestro McGegan is among the few conductors active today with a mastery of the art of cuing players, and it was apparent that he was actually listening to the musicians rather than merely waving his hands at them. There was wonderful joy in Maestro McGegan’s conducting—the joy of a musician whose understanding of the music at hand and its possibilities nullifies any need to seek inspiration or potency beyond the composers’ scores.

It is bizarre that, unlike so many of America’s largest cities, Chicago has enjoyed relatively limited exposure to Baroque repertory. Despite having been heard in opera houses and concert halls throughout the world and in American cities as diverse as Charlotte and Milwaukee, her début with the CSO was, aside from an intimate University of Chicago tribute to Rossini scholar Philip Gossett with Joyce DiDonato, Ms. Genaux’s introduction to the Windy City. Had she paraded along Michigan Avenue at the head of an invincible army, her conquering of the city could not have been more complete. The audience on Tuesday evening rewarded her performance with a standing ovation, an honor that in Symphony Hall still must be earned. Opening with ‘Alma oppressa da sorte crudele’ from Antonio Vivaldi’s La fida ninfa, composed for the celebrated Bolognese soprano Giovanna Gasparini, the bravura technique for which the singer is renowned was on dizzying form. The volleys of coloratura with which Licori contemplates the soul-crushing weight of misfortune were launched with brilliance, the darkness of the timbre increasing the emotional intensity of the nimbly-ornamented vocal line. ‘Dolci, freschi aurette’ from Nicola Porpora’s Polifemo—the first of the three arias in the programme that were composed for Farinelli—made equally formidable demands on Ms. Genaux’s technique but inspired her to even greater emotional connection: the beautiful melodic lines, a credit to their composer, were radiantly sung, and more than almost any other singer who specializes in this repertory Ms. Genaux consistently integrates vocal pyrotechnics into the interpretive nuances of her performances, embellishing da capo repeats lavishly but tastefully. Even when the sheer profusion of notes necessitates punctuating phrases with breaths, Ms. Genaux artfully conceals effort in displays of passionate but completely natural musical drama. The original design of the CSO concert had all four arias performed in succession, but as was explained in brief introductory remarks the decision was made to present two arias before the interval and two after, allowing—as Maestro McGegan quipped—Ms. Genaux to partake of ‘a glass of water before climbing Mount Everest.’ In vocal terms, the second pair of arias confirmed the suitability of the analogy. Composed by Porpora as a showpiece finale for the pastiche that was hashed out of Johann Adolf Hasse’s Artaserse, ‘Or la nube procellosa’ is the sort of aria at which Farinelli apparently excelled, the bristling bravura passages requiring both consummate technical skills and, ideally, an insightful use of text. Ms. Genaux disappointed in neither aspect, her mastery of the music allied with a native speaker’s usage of Italian. Farinelli’s brother, Riccardo Broschi, certainly was not a great composer, but he was eminently capable of creating music that exploited his brother’s vocal capabilities. ‘Qual guerriero in campo armato’ from Broschi’s Idaspe became Farinelli’s most iconic aria di baule: in whichever opera an audience heard the legendary castrato, they were likely to hear ‘Qual guerriero in campo armato.’ To the modern listener acquainted with the arias of Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, and even Rossini, the difficulties of ‘Qual guerriero in campo armato’ likely seem utterly ridiculous, and the slightest glance at the score leaves little doubt of why this music—and the bulk of Baroque vocal repertory in general—was neglected for more than two centuries. In the best of times, singers with the technique needed to survive ‘Qual guerriero in campo armato’—merely to survive the aria, not to sing it well—are very rare: without question, it was beyond the capacities of most of Farinelli’s castrato contemporaries. Listeners who are acquainted with Pyrotechnics, her recital disc of Vivaldi arias, perhaps were not surprised by the way in which Ms. Genaux dominated Broschi’s relentlessly lung-busting music, but it is unfathomable that anyone in Symphony Hall on Tuesday evening was not dazzled by her performance. Not only was her singing of the rapid-fire coloratura spot-on, both in pitch and in rhythm, but the leaps from top to bottom of the range were perfectly managed. The sharply-differentiated lilting passages were highlighted by Ms. Genaux’s firm, intense delivery of text, supported with ideal synchronicity by Maestro McGegan and the CSO. A special joy of Ms. Genaux’s singing were her trills: for once, these were actual alternations between two distinct pitches, delivered in the correct rhythms. Were he on hand to hear such a performance of music that his gifts inspired, Farinelli could only have been proud—unless, of course, he was understandably jealous.

Tuesday evening’s CSO concert was an uncommon occurrence of great music, great musicians, and a great city colliding in a fascinating explosion of exceptional music-making. The programme of music by J.C. Bach, Händel, Haydn, Porpora, and Vivaldi swept the audience along a journey through nearly a century of the most dynamic years in vocal and instrumental music; a journey along which the ace players of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra distinguished themselves with fine performances of music quite different from their typical repertoire. This music is the natural habitat of Jory Vinikour and Nicholas McGegan, but there was nothing routine about their performances, which approached the music as though they were affectionately greeting old friends. The star of the evening was unquestionably Vivica Genaux, however, and her Chicago Symphony début proved as overwhelming as it was overdue.