Philharmonia Baroque’s Shakespeare

 

By Scott MacClelland

THE CARMEL BACH FESTIVAL in January? It certainly felt like it when Philharmonia Baroque arrived Sunday afternoon at Sunset Center. They, and retiring conductor Nicholas McGegan—as much scholar and properly-trained conductor as entertainer—spirited his instrumentalists from the harpsichord through 17th and 18th century music composed on a theme of Shakespeare, with many works written specifically for Shakespeare plays and comedies. The glittering soprano of Sherezade Panthaki (right) added a fine point to the program.

Hosted by the Carmel Music Society, it would have been a perfect program for the Carmel Bach Festival of yore. But not anymore. The Bach Festival has wandered far afield from its Baroque origins and, under current conductor Paul Goodwin, to a significant degree even the music of its namesake. All the more puzzling to see Bach’s board president, Cyril Yansouni, and executive, Steve Friedlander, in the audience. Like them the music attracted an expectant turnout ready to share a similar appetite for what the Bach Festival prioritized before Goodwin was given a free hand to chart his own—often eccentric—path, one that sometimes seems more impulsive than purposeful, more whim than vision.

This concert was McGegan’s generous and plainly enthusiastic last hurrah, even as his successor, Richard Egarr, is already touring another Philharmonia Baroque program around the state. McGegan divided the fare between Shakespeare under the Stuarts and Shakespeare under the Georgians. The program handout was top heavy with program notes and song texts for this one (of six) season concerts. Additionally, an inserted 15-page brochure went over much of the same but added more background to the otherwise fairly obscure composers. The chamber ensemble consisted of strings, using Baroque practice set-up, lute and guitar, plus solo oboe and solo flute. The ‘Stuart’ first half of the program contrasted its relative austerity with the flamboyant ‘Georgian’ second half that demarked the restoration of the monarchy, in 1660. Speaking from the stage, McGegan’s witty repartee set the tone for the afternoon.

To begin, Jeremiah Clarke’s overture to Titus Andronicus, though composed well after the Restoration, provided an exact template for the opera overtures by George Frideric Handel, with its dotted rhythm processional and following fugue. Panthaki then joined the band for two songs from The Tempest, “Full fathom five” and “Where the bee sucks” in settings by Robert Johnson. These were lute songs, an English tradition that dates to the late 16th century. The relatively narrow vocal range made it easy to understand the sung words—with the house lights raised sufficiently to follow them on the page. Other composers, some with the caveat “attributed to,” were Henry Purcell, John Weldon, Matthew Locke and James Paisible. Just ahead of the latter’s suite from The Humours of Sir John Falstaff, oboist Gonzalo Ruiz joined the continuo ensemble to engage in a duet with the soprano for “Halcyon Days,” music attributed to Purcell.

To open the concert’s second half, flutist Janet See joined Panthaki and the consort for “When daisies pied” from As you Like it, in a setting by Thomas Arne. This time, giggles got the audience going on the word cuckoo, a back-and-forth echo-fest. “Pardon, goddess of the night” from Much Ado about Nothing turned to the minor, with plaintive appoggiaturas and a brief but stormy “B” section, the work of composer Thomas Chilcot and clear evidence of the rise of the Baroque da capo aria. Chilcot’s “Orpheus with his lute” from Henry VIII, a full-ranged coloratura operatic showpiece, displayed the flute against a backdrop of pizzicato strings. (Henry VIII, also known as All Is True, by Shakespeare and John Fletcher appeared in the First Folio of 1623, seven years after the Bard’s death.) JC Smith’s overture to The Tempest was in fact a dance suite. That led to two more songs from The Tempest, “O bid your faithful Ariel fly” and “Come unto these yellow sands,” by the short-lived Thomas Linley, the latter bringing back the oboe. McGegan’s concert ended as he introduced a latter-day quodlibet, Charles Dibdin’s dances composed for producer David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee 1769, a spectacle that turned Stratford, the playwright’s birth- and death-place, into a perpetual tourist destination.