SC Chorale & Baroque Festival

By Scott MacClelland

It seems the “Joyful Reunion” of the Santa Cruz Chorale and Santa Cruz Baroque Festival was misleading. Word going round during Sunday’s performance at Holy Cross Church pointed to the event as a first-time collaboration. Still the nearly full house was so hungry for what was served that at the end of the program the audience remained seated, even as its long-sustained applause finally faded. At first, Chorale conductor Christian Grube (pictured) looked perplexed but then offered an encore—a repeat of the final chorus from Georg Friedrich Handel’s Seventh Chandos Anthem.

Christian_Grube_nov_2004_by_karen_gordonThat work, second in the order of presentation, was probably getting its local premiere and I suspect the same could be said for the opening piece, Henry Purcell’s O Sing unto the Lord a New Song (Psalm 96). Purcell was a towering talent in 17th century London, as prolific in his 36 short years as his musical imagination was brilliant, this being an example of the latter. The work, with a couple of short instrumental ‘symphonies’ added, was laid out like a Baroque cantata. (This was likewise true of the Handel and, to finish the program, JS Bach’s BWV 68, Also hat Gott die Welt Geliebt.) A sequence of arias, duets and choruses ensued, opening with the title bass aria which introduced the marvelous bass-baritone of Paul Murray, well known in the SF Bay Area. His was a commanding room-filling presence. Next to him was the tenor Daniel C. Plaster, with a lighter texture but effectively modulated according to the texts and, moreover, able to sing alto in a duet with the lighter-still soprano of Suzanne Duval. The chorus of 45 members initially murmured alleluias, then gently in their own iteration of Sing unto the Lord, and more robustly for their next entrance Glory and worship are before Him. Through it all, Grube skillfully shaped and balanced the singers, as he would continue doing in the Handel and Bach works.

The ten-piece orchestra, from Linda Burman-Hall’s SC Baroque Festival, served Grube with style and finesse. With the A tuned to 415Hz the Baroque instruments and bows made an intimate sound in the room that took some audience members time to acclimate. Some also were a bit puzzled by Shelley Phillips’ oboe da caccia (hunting oboe) due to its C-shaped curve. Throughout, Burman-Hall played continuo organ, but began the second half of the program with the delightful organ concerto in F, HWV 293, an arrangement Handel had made from his own flute (recorder) sonata in F, HWV 369. She freely ornamented the right hand melodies with playful trills and turns.

The Handel anthem, My Song shall be always (HWV 252), is the seventh of a dozen composed for the duke of Chandos, a patron of the composer’s early years in Britain. It, like the Purcell, opens with a sinfonia (overture). The first aria, for soprano, is punctuated by the chorus in unisons and octave leaps, a rare effect. The first of the following two scenes, for tenor and chorus, takes the form of a French overture, with strongly articulated dotted rhythms on the text God is very greatly to be fear’d. In the second, the ‘raging sea’ followed by ‘stilled sea’ are pictorially depicted, while Plaster, the soloist, drew those images with keen expression. In the final aria, Handel’s notoriously virtuosic coloratura proved a daunting challenge for Ms Duval.

The program’s richest textures concentrated in Bach’s For God so loved the world, the most deeply felt work of the afternoon. You can’t listen to this work, despite all its clever and colorful invention, without recognizing that Bach truly believed. (Not that he always set words he believed; some of the secular ‘name day’ cantata commissions are plainly over the top.) Yet, he recycled material here from earlier pieces, as witness the hunting oboe music from the cantata, BWV 208, “My only true joy is a jolly hunt.”

The soaring opening chorus, in a lilting 12/8 meter, is Bach at his simultaneous ‘good news’ ‘bad news’ best; sorrow that Christ must be sacrificed but joyful at mankind’s redemption. The exuberant soprano aria, My steadfast heart rejoice, gave an equally busy countermelody to cellist Amy Brodo and bassoonist Yueh Chou, which then elided into a magical contrapuntal ritornello for the other instruments, with concertmaster Rob Diggins on top. Oboes and bassoon accompanied the following da capo bass aria, Thou were born for my sake, that moves like a cantering horse. The final chorus, a complex double fugue, gives a rising theme to the redeemed and an ambiguous one to the condemned non-believers, at last uttered softly as if in regret.

Brava to Chorale member Karen Gordon for her excellent program notes, and her photo (above) of Grube.