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Time-Traveling with Crescendo

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Oct 28th, 2019

Baroque Splendor was the title of Crescendo’s 15th anniversary benefit program under the direction of Christine Gevert at Trinity Church in Lakeville, CT this past Sunday afternoon. The program centered upon George Frederic Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach: the first part being Roman Catholic choral style in English; the second being Protestant in Latin and German with solos, duos, trios, and participant audience singing.

Handel’s Coronation Anthems opened the concert: “Zadock the Priest” prevails as the most famous since it has been used for every coronation since King George II in 1727. This piece remains successful despite banal and blasphemous lyrics (“May the King live forever. Amen, alleluia”). I thought this line might grind the teeth on any Anglican theologian and possibly inspire more devoted fanatics to invite assassination. The secret of its long-lived success lay in its full-throated choral arrangement, which was executed to thunderous perfection. The music of “My Heart is Inditing” contains dignified lyrics and sumptuous arrangement. “Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened” was short and sleight, while “The King Shall Rejoice” was performed to full potential by chorus and musicians. Unfortunately, this was robust, overly brash music wallowing in thump-thump-thumping timpani, faux flattery, and sing-song rhythms with repeated phrases which, the program noted, Charles Burney declared as Handel’s “big bow-wow” ceremonial style. It was loud, ostentatious, gawdy, and carefully honed voices blended into the stained-glass colored windows in synesthetic splendor that might impress a foreign diplomat.

The advantage of this concert lay in hearing period music in a chapel setting akin to the acoustics that resembled original ambiance. I must sing high praise for first violinist Peter Lekx from Montréal, Canada, who played with puissant joy: tuneful, irrepressible, and energetic in leading the strings.

While I enjoy much of Handel, especially his barge music, Alcina, and Messiah, I could not help recalling Alexander Pope’s satiric lines on the excess of Handel’s style:

                Strong in new Arms, lo! Giant Handel stands,

                Like bold Briareus, with a hundred hands;

                To stir, to rouze, to shake the Soul he comes,

                And Jove’s own Thunders follow Mars’ Drums.

                Arrest him, Empress; or you sleep no more’—

She heard, and drove him to th’Hibernian shore.

                    The Dunciad, Book IV


After intermission Bach’s Magnificat, BWV 243 was performed. The opening of this favorite hymn by Luke was inspired by a passage in Homer’s Odyssey, Book 11, the Hades episode where occurs the story of Poseidon who seduces the virgin Tyro. Poseidon tells Tyro that the fruit of her womb is blessed and that she will give birth to twins, glorious heroes, but she must tell no one the name of the father and raise the children with great care. Luke is displacing the patron goddess of the Odyssey, the Virgin Goddess who adopts Odysseus. Luke, who met Paul at Antioch, was from Thebes, the ancient enemy of Athens; Thebes began the long war with Athens, yet Athens did not know that Thebes had a secret military treaty with Sparta. While Thebes thus precipitated the downfall of Athens, Luke performed the final cultural obliteration of both the sacred text of Athens, as well as its patroness god, Athena, by substituting the mother of Jesus as a figure of devotion in the new syncretic religion that was also displacing the Greek god Christos, Dionysos of wine, theater, and divinely inspired words.

Here noted Soprano Julianne Baird (who can be heard on over 150 solo discs) excelled. The audience was encouraged by conductor Christine Gevert to accompany the chorus in a short nativity hymn attributed to Martin Luther. Charles Beutel superbly performed a bass solo accompanied with inspired lyric intensity by cellist David Bakamjian. Alto Countertenor Nicholas Tamagna delivered an electric solo with his high, clear, sweet voice, accompanied by oboist Joyce Alper. If you see Tamagna’s name featured at a performance, I urge you to make the pilgrimage, for you will revel in the experience of hearing his voice.  Tamagna and tenor Philip Anderson sang of the mercy of the Lord with convincing persuasion. There was more singing with choir and audience. Another brief highlight was the trio of Baird, Tamagna, and Anderson singing together. The choral Gloria Patri concluded this work, a Latin hymn favored by both Roman Catholics and Protestants.    

For Finale, the 13th stanza of Martin Luther’s hymn “Von Himmel hoch, da komm ich her” as set by J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was sung with full-throated enthusiasm by chorale and attendees with the sentiment that the Holy Child rests in our hearts. With festive advent unity, concert goers were encouraged to a reception to meet and talk with this immense assembly of performers where I chatted with ever-affable and musically superb voice of Monte Stone. I nearly neglected to mention that bassoonists and horn players played a vibrant and vital role in this splendid concert, as did Hideki Yamaya on giant theorbo: all under the energetic direction of Christine Gevert, master of unusually creative programs for voice and period instruments.