American Bach Soloists use Baroque influences in Berkeley performance

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A boy and a girl lock eyes, meet and fall blissfully in love — until their seeming “happily-ever-after” is thwarted by a jealous man, desirous of the girl’s affections. Sounds like the classic love triangle plot to any romantic drama, right? Except in this case the girl is a nymph, the boy a shepherd, the jealous man a cyclops and the setting Handel’s pastoral opera “Acis and Galatea.”

The American Bach Soloists (ABS) enlivened the First Congregational Church of Berkeley with their performance of “Acis and Galatea,” as well as Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 4,” on Jan. 24. Founded in 1989, the Soloists are an orchestral and vocal ensemble dedicated to the performance of Baroque classical music. While their repertoire consists mainly of Bach, the group has expanded to include music by his contemporaries and other artists of the early Classical era. The ABS are currently led by co-founder and music director Jeffrey Thomas, who some recognize as one of the foremost interpreters of the music of Bach and the Baroque.

The evening began with Bach’s “Concerto No.4,” which he dedicated to the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg in 1721. The jaunty first movement commenced with a ritornello, which revealed the basic melody for the piece as well as the primary instrumental argumentation.  The main focus was the alternating solos between the violin and two recorders, which contrasted with each other as well as with the rest of the orchestra. This playful inter-instrumental dialogue introduced the weaving of harmonic texture, which was both refreshing and challenging for the listener.

Meanwhile, violin soloist Elizabeth Blumenstock gave an enthusiastic performance in the first movement, while the second movement featured the vivacious Judith Linsenberg and Debra Nagy, both on the recorder; both Linsenburg and Nagy breathed new life into an instrument rarely used in classical music.

After the Brandenburg Concerto, the ensemble performed “Acis and Galatea” for the remainder of the night. With the libretto written by John Gay, Alexander Pope and John Hughes, set to music composed by Handel, the opera occupies the genre of a masque, or pastoral opera — a form of courtly entertainment concerned with the portrayal of rural country life.

While the ensemble performed beautifully, it was the four soloists who shone brightest in this latter portion of the concert. Nola Richardson was perfection as Galatea, her precise, crystalline vocals sailing effortlessly over even the most difficult of runs. Though Richardson’s counterpart Kyle Stegall (Acis) was slightly underwhelming in the opening scenes, he truly stunned in the second act. His honeyed voice took on a fervent, almost startling power when vocalizing his rage against Polyphemus (“Love sounds th’alarm and fear is a-flying”). The jealous passion was evident in his burning eyes.

Richardson and Stegall were well-paired, each possessing a clear tonal quality. Mischa Bouvier, as the cyclops Polyphemus, was convincingly powerful and terrifying. His voice reached unbelievably deep notes with ease. Damon, who acts as the voice of reason for the two lovers, was sung by the expressive and charismatic Zachary Wilder, whose buttery smooth interjections were a pleasure to hear and enraptured the audience. The choir, too, brought remarkable depth and body to the music with its sonorous contributions.

Though “Acis and Galatea” is a relatively short opera, it manages to take the listener through a surprisingly intense emotional journey. While the initial pieces provide lighthearted pastoral imagery through the orchestra’s jovial accompaniment, the tone later shifts dramatically to a somber, melodramatic elegy (after Acis’demise). Although Polyphemus is the opera’s obvious villain, Handel takes care not to demonize or dehumanize the cyclops, rather entreating the audience to view him compassionately.

Through his multi-layered composition, Handel makes it evident that behind Polyphemus’ vengeful bellows lies a mere man who is frustrated, confused and hopelessly lovelorn. Perhaps it is this sensitivity to the human experience of love and suffering that makes Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” so moving and enduring.

 

Contact Madeline Zimring at [email protected]ycal.org.

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