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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 10, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 10
Pacific MusicWorks gives joyful performance of Handel's arias for tenor
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Pacific MusicWorks gives joyful performance of Handel's arias for tenor

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN Contributing Writer

PACIFIC MUSICWORKS
'HANDEL'S TENOR: BEARD'S BEAUTIES'
NORDSTROM RECITAL HALL
BENAROYA HALL
February 26


Pacific MusicWorks has become justly famous for its flawless performances of baroque music. Every concert is not only a joy to the ear, but a feast for the eyes as the splendid sixteen-person orchestra - whose violinists and woodwind players stand throughout each performance - move and sway to the gorgeous harmonies they produce. This is a genre that needs to be seen as well as heard to get the full impact of its drama.

The recent concert of tenor arias by George Frederick Handel at the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall was a perfect illustration of the visual dimension of baroque music. Led by the Grammy award-winning team of Artistic Director Stephen Stubbs and tenor Aaron Sheehan, the orchestra treated its audience to two of Handel's 'Concerti Grossi' and a rich collection of arias written for tenor James Beard, who performed in Handel's oratorios from 1734 onward. You can close your eyes as you listen to Pacific MusicWorks and hear a great concert, or, with eyes open, you can see a live performance of music that exceeds any recording in its immediacy and controlled spontaneity. The delighted audience in Nordstrom Recital Hall was all eyes and ears as 'Beard's Beauties' (the 'beauties' being beautiful arias) were embodied as Handel's own audience saw them, with all the visual fascination of facial expression, body language, and manual dexterity.

Some selections were very familiar, such as four pieces from 'The Messiah' (1741), while others were either less familiar to a general audience or available only on recordings. For instance, 'Alexander's Feast' (1736) and 'Ode for St. Cecelia's Day' (1739) are wonderful vocal dramas about conflict and music-making - pieces that I listen to regularly - but I've never heard a single aria from either work sung live until this concert. Likewise, there was a long sequence of arias included from Samson (1732), a rarely produced oratorio, but the first that Handel wrote for a tenor leading role. I was fortunate to hear it sung by Jon Vickers when Samson was mounted by the Metropolitan Opera in 1986. It was a moody, abstract production about Samson's post-Delilah downfall, when he prays for the strength to destroy the pagan temple. Yet these days, apart from an occasional church solo, I haven't heard any of this great oratorio sung live. Consequently, PMW's selection of seven of Handel's richly dramatic tenor pieces from Samson was more than welcome - it was a reminder of a great genre of music that should be revived more often and more completely.

Aaron Sheehan is familiar to PMW regulars for his terrific performance in Gluck's Orpheé et Eurydice in 2015. What I then called his 'beautiful, ringing vocal tones in the haute-contre tradition' were on full display in this challenging collection of arias. Without overacting in a concert setting, Sheehan's body language - covering the defiance and recklessness of Alexander the Great to the despair and pathos of Samson - was in perfect visual tune with his passionate, controlled singing. Together with PMW's orchestral liveliness and precision the music was fairly sculpted in a concert of movement as well as sound. I only wish we could have heard more from each of Handel's works, since all are narratives that have story lines. What we had were snapshots that only made me long for the complete dramas.

Enough can't be said for Tekla Cunningham, first violin and Orchestra Director, who conducts with head, eyes, and even eyebrows as she plays. She is a consummate musician whose flowing solos and musical gestures are a joy to watch. Stephen Stubbs, with his baroque guitar and lute, added the light texture that shimmered through the music like sparkling crystals. My partner's favorite player of the evening was Nate Helgeson, whose exciting, dramatic bassoon was matched by his emphatic body language. I was fascinated by Adam Pearl on the harpsichord and organ, whose alert, restrained continuo provided the solid floor supporting the whole enterprise. Seattle audiences are hugely fortunate to have Pacific MusicWorks in town, anchoring an ever-growing community of early music performers and audiences.

Next up from this great organization is their annual collaboration with the UW School of Music and Chamber Singers to perform a baroque opera. This year's work is Henry Purcell's marvelous, dramatic English opera, Dido and Aeneas. We've seen this work performed at Meany Hall some years ago when Mark Morris brought his great dance version. Now experience it as Purcell's own audiences might have seen it.

Tickets are on sale now for their April 29 & 30 performances. http://www.pacificmusicworks.org/

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