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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 29, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 44
Hidden musical treasure in Seattle
Arts & Entertainment
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Hidden musical treasure in Seattle

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Seattle Baroque Orchestra
October 23
Town Hall


Once upon a time, when I lived in NYC, I stopped taking the Sunday Times because it pained me to see all the many wonderful musical events I would be missing for lack of money or time. There was simply too much going on! I finally left N.Y. for P-town on Cape Cod, in part because I found the Big Apple to be a case of constant over-stimulation, both good and bad. I mention this because Seattle's cultural scene is beginning to feel similar. For instance, last weekend's experience with the Seattle Baroque Orchestra makes me agonize that I don't have the time to see this fabulous organization more often.

It would be hard to imagine a more delightful concert than Saturday's. But apparently the Seattle Baroque Orchestra is a relatively undiscovered treasure, for Town Hall was scarcely half-full. So let me first describe the SBO.

On this occasion there were six baroque violins, two baroque violas, two baroque celli, a theorbo, a harpsichord, and a small positive organ. Led by music director Ingrid Matthews and artistic director Byron Schenkman, this absolutely first-rate group played with joyful animation and buoyant spirit, with most members standing. Their sound was both articulate and smooth. Their music flowed in an almost liquid undulation, bright like a mylar ribbon in a breeze, yet warm like a down comforter. Balances were perfect, except that one could have wished for more sound from the small harpsichord. Seldom did more than a couple measures pass without a smile appearing on Ingrid Matthews' face, part of an obviously easy communication among the players. Their seamless ensemble was clearly the result of ample rehearsal.

The first half was entirely instrumental. The works played, mostly from the early 18th century, were a Sinfonia by Alessandro Scarlatti, concerti by Charles Avison (after Domenico Scarlatti) and Francesco Durante, and a cello concerto by Nicola Porpora. Nathan Whittaker, a member of the SBO and of Plaine & Easie (appearing in an Early Music Guild concert on November 6th) was the soloist for the Porpora. Whittaker is a young, curly-headed blonde with a baby face and a beatific smile somewhere between Itzhak Perlman and Lang Lang. His playing was a joy, clearly for him as much as for us. Byron Schenkman alternated between harpsichord and organ during the four movements. My partner Dale remarked that the difference was strange; with the harpsichord the cello sounded thin and cool, but with the organ the cello sound became warm and rich.

As if the first half weren't rewarding enough, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's glorious 'Stabat Mater' filled the second half with sounds of such perfection that I could hardly believe my ears. Soprano Yulia Van Doren and male alto Ian Howell could not have been a better pair for this music. Both had beautiful, rich voices, effortlessly produced. But what made them extraordinary was their expressive musicianship, their perfectly blended timbres, and the perfect choices in their use of straight tone alternating with lovely vibrati. From the very beginning, Pergolesi used the juxtaposition of two tones close together for expressive effect, which will work only if the singers use no vibrato whatsoever. The soloist did this to perfection. They also used lovely baroque trills. (Mr. Howell is a member of the San Francisco, mostly Gay Chanticleer.)

The SBO accompanied with sympathy and just balances. Again, Schenkman moved from harpsichord to organ (at which he stood while playing). Even in such a sad piece, lively movements alternated with dolorous slower tempi. Twelve short movements in all, the 'Stabat Mater' came alive with a beauty such as I never expect to hear again.

For future concerts by the Seattle Baroque Orchestra and the Early Music Guild, see www.earlymusicguild.org or call (206) 325-7066.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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