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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 17, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 07
Daniel Taylor makes Early Music swing
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Daniel Taylor makes Early Music swing

by Rod Parke - SGN Contributing Writer

Theatre of Early Music
February 11
Town Hall


Duke Ellington wrote, 'It Don't Mean a Thing' if it ain't got that swing. Real music happens only when the players love what they're doing, and it helps if that joy shows, even if it's Tchaikovsky's 'Pathétique' they are loving to share. When the great Sasha Rostropovich defied his nearly 80 years and leapt upon the podium, it was clear on the faces of the musicians that he was inviting them to have fun making music. That element of genuine fun was one of the many pleasures of this concert by the Theatre of Early Music, directed by Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor.

The clear pleasure of these players and singers enhanced some serious music-making of the highest order. The first half included arias and a duet by Handel, Tallis, and Purcell. Each of the soloists had no trouble filling the Town Hall's large auditorium with pleasing sounds, and tenor Benjamin Butterfield particularly impressed with his fine voice and technique. We could understand every word. But, as is usually the case, the words sung (all in English) by the women were hardly understandable at all. How I wish the Early Music Guild would provide supratitles for every vocal concert!

The highlight of this section was the duet 'Oh Lovely Peace' from the opera Judas Maccabeus, sung by soprano Grace Davidson and countertenor Taylor. Handel, it seems, could not write a bad duet, and this lovely piece was full of delights, especially the perfectly matched vocal ornaments. Both singers made beautiful sounds, which were made the more so when they sang in parallel harmonies.

But the focus of the evening was the semi-staged presentation of Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas. Here all 10 singers were engaged either in the impressive chorus or as characters in the familiar story. Even Taylor left his position as conductor, undid the band on his frizzy ponytail, and became the wicked Sorceress, who in this version of the story stimulates Aeneas' need to abandon Dido and leave to found Rome. All the singers were impressive, except for the lead role of Dido. Many great sopranos have sung and recorded Dido's great lament that accompanies her death. Unfortunately, Noemi Kiss had only a rather metallic, hard voice that allowed very little variation of tone for expression. Particularly impressive were Alexander Dobson, with his powerful bass as Aeneas, and Taylor, whose countertenor expressed perfectly the manic evil of the Sorceress. His voice is very strong, and he delighted in pushing it into deliberately un-beautiful and appropriate sounds for this role.

Quite a few years ago, my partner Dale and I traveled to Los Angeles for the LA Opera's presentation of three openly Gay countertenors in Handel's opera Julius Caesar. It was a night of glorious singing, including that of Taylor. We had no idea he had such a profound knowledge of early music or such skills in leading an outstanding ensemble of musicians. In this evening's concert he conducted with minimal, efficient gestures, giving a clear beat when needed, but trusting these able players to get along just fine on their own. His trust was well-founded. There were three first violins, one second violin, a viola, a cello and double bass, a harpsichord, and a large lute. Their blend was perfect, and their sound was appropriate to the period. They never swamped the singers, yet they filled the hall with big sounds when needed.

Especially fun was the chorus of witches accompanying Taylor's Sorceress. At a couple points, they had a delightful laughing chorus of 'He he ... ha ha ... ho ho!' that required great precision and was done with truly effective, rather contagious humor. Along with Taylor's poised and friendly addresses to the audience, such moments made the evening memorable and more than a little fun.

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

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