Richard Egarr revives baroque music

Philharmonia Baroque/Courtesy

Baroque music can be difficult to characterize, with composers ranging from the ubiquitous Johann Sebastian Bach to the obscure  Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. Guest conducting the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Richard Egarr, aimed at striking a balance between celebrating the peculiarities of the period, while reinvigorating modern interest in the musical era.

Richard Egarr was a veritable triple-threat as the orchestra’s enthusiastic, oriental-robed conductor, an energetic harpsichordist and even a comedic emcee at Herbst Theatre last Friday. Such eccentric multi-tasking provided rich moments where he would have one hand commanding the keys of his harpsichord while using the other to emphatically gesture to his orchestra to the point of caricature. After these theatric performances, Egarr would rise and give what resembled a stand-up routine on baroque music theory, eliciting bourgeois guffaws from the audience’s resident music historians.

One of baroque music’s distinctive characteristics is its bottled, quirky sound (aged to obscure perfection) cultivated by the era’s antiquated instruments. In the performance was David Tayler’s prominently displayed theorbo, an instrument of the lute family that could be understood as the offspring of a guitar and a sitar with some harp in the family lineage. With all eyes fixated on this oddity, Tayler made grand gestures and authoritatively moved any encroaching music stands of neighboring cellists, clearly marking his domain.  With two distinct headstocks, the instrument had an elusive auditory character ranging from the plucking of a delicate harp to the punchy strum of a banjo­ — giving the orchestra a flavor that was undeniably baroque.

At the same time, it is the very eccentricity of these instruments that stole away our attention from the rest of the orchestra, like a self-obsessed thespian hogging the limelight. While performing Thomas Arne’s “Concerto for Harpsichord No. 5 in G minor”, Egarr’s lightening-fast playing of his harpsichord, along with the instrument’s sharp electric twangs, silenced his conservative orchestral accompaniment. In these moments, Egarr struggled to find compositional balance as he was over-reliant on his own instrument, revealing a distinctively baroque obsession with harpsichordian fantasies.

Still, Egarr’s enthusiasm moved the orchestra to musically narrate dramatic scenes, ripe with epic grandeur.  In a piece by once soldier and composer William Lawes, the orchestra created vast landscapes with their rich, voluminous notes. In the first movement, “Fantazy No. 1,” we’re given the would-be accompaniment to a glorious sunrise just before battle. The audience was then marched into the thick of the fight with combating violinists playing competing scales with volleys of notes shot back and forth across the stage.

Egarr displayed exquisite control over the emotional direction of pieces, producing dynamic movements with fine-tuned transitions between pristine calms and violent crescendos.  The orchestra’s rendition of Matthew Locke’s accompaniment to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” commenced with quiet violin bows gracefully giving whole notes that hummed with a divine purity. These delicate sounds were directed by Egarr, who gestured with precise gentleness, as if he were carefully crocheting a scarf for the lead violinist. In a flash, the orchestra led the unsuspecting audience into torrents of eighth notes played at a furious pace. The remaining movements were left with a foreboding quality, balanced between deceptive tranquility and cataclysmic intensity.