By Alan Artner
In the last 30 years many of the freshest experiences in the concert hall have been provided by historically aware performances of early music.
Sunday afternoon at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts that was clearly the case again, with the bonus of unfamiliar music given a highly individual setting.
San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players and Chorale conducted by Nicholas McGegan presented a shimmering program called “Italian Baroque Music from the Jewish Ghetto,” and the manner of its unfolding was as appealing as the authority and beauty of its performances.
Superficially, the event resembled the old “Beyond the Score” presentations of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in essence being illustrated program notes. But where those proceedings worked hard to avoid the sense of lectures, relying ever more on actors and what became arch declamation, the Philharmonia readily embraced a scholar and slide show, adding banter and a post-concert “party” where listeners could mingle with performers.
Francesco Spagnolo spoke of the rule of the Duke of Mantua in the 16th Century, aided by projections — of photographs, floor plans, maps, paintings — on a screen of Cinemascope proportions. He outlined the foundation of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice and established that the later one in Mantua became a place of intellectual and cosmopolitan encounter.
Which brought us to the real subject of the afternoon, Salamone Rossi (c. 1570-1630), the composer who, unusually, was active in all three arenas of musical expression: synagogue, theater and court. McGegan's chats with Spagnolo included a number of light references, to Lady Gaga as well as country and western music, but the jokes were mild and never were they forced or condescending. Soon enough, however, he returned to the harpsichord from which he conducted instrumentalists (two violins, cello, theorbo), eight singers from the chorale and soprano Sherezade Panthaki.
The program began with vocal music by Rossi in Hebrew and Italian, continued with later works based on synagogue melodies collected by Benedetto Marcello, and eventually returned to Rossi for courtly dances and a wedding ode with echo effects. In each the singers and players were as stylish, precise and expressive as one would expect, given that McGegan is a lively conductor who in 32 years has made the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale one of the finest such groups in the United States.
But Panthaki’s contributions excelled even that, eliciting audible sighs of contentment from several in the audience. Her two Rossi madrigals on texts by Giovanni Guarini were strong, heartfelt and rapturous in expression. And two more selections by Claudio Monteverdi — he, too, was in Mantua, and Rossi’s sister perhaps sang his music — had great vividness, at times caressing the text and always charming the audience. It was hard to imagine anyone achieving more in Monteverdi’s "Laudate Dominum” from Psalm 150 and Prologue from “Orfeo.”
Pierre Boulez used to say, “Do something about it,” to anyone complaining about the time-worn format of concerts. On Sunday the Philharmonic Baroque did, and it proved both a lesson and pleasure.