A shout-out to classical audiences everywhere: if your hearing aid is squealing with feedback to the point where the entire audience and several performers are handing you dirty looks, turn it off. This is equivalent to taking someone up on an offer to share their hotel room without bothering to inform them that you snore. The messa di voce from “Dove sei?” should not have been turned into a duet between one of the world’s greatest living voices and a hearing aid. Yes, it would be a pity for you — but now it’s a pity for several hundred other people, including NPR as they were apparently recording the concert.
Moving right along, the concert was nevertheless quite wonderful only because the blood-and-guts verve of the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the celestial beauty of Andreas Scholl’s falsetto can apparently vanquish any obstacle in their path. It is truly a mark of their talent and professionalism that they cruised brilliantly on despite that distraction.
The first impression the orchestra made on me when they came out was that with only a few exceptions, they were all awfully fair. I suppose that makes sense for Australians, but if they are typical of their countrymen, they must use a lot of sunscreen Down Under. No tuxedos or ball gowns were in evidence, either; the performers stood in black pants, with black button-down cotton shirts on the men (and a few gelled fauxhawks) and long kimono wraps on the women. Good thing they stood, too — from the first note, it was clear that these people were there to take the bit between their teeth and run. On the way up to Santa Barbara (a 90 mile drive for me), I had been listening to some music, including a few of the downright polite examples of Russell Oberlin’s Handel Arias, recorded in the 1950s. The contrast between the two styles struck almost physically, and the infusion of adrenaline into a form of music that has always been interpreted too stuffily is one of the best things to come out of the current Baroque revival. I’ve seen four-piece rock bands who didn’t attack their music with this much ferocity. I have a tendency to close my eyes or look down when I listen to music, but I made a point of keeping them open and up more frequently, the better to enjoy the vigor of the performers and all those sawing and bouncing bows.
The first piece was a Vivaldi Concerto Grosso (Op. 3, No. 11, R565), and if you’ve always considered Vivaldi to be stodgy music for dead indolent royalty, the Aussies would have changed your mind quickly. The entire audience, a fussy bunch if I’m any judge, sat stunned when they were finished, and it took a while for us to applaud, with great enthusiasm. The music was immediate enough to taste, and the bass violin nearly made my sternum vibrate.
The second part of the program was what I had really come for, though: a selection including many of Handel’s top arias for Senesino sung by the premiere falsettist in the world today, Andreas Scholl. He was similarly casually dressed compared to what one might expect: black slacks, a black button-down shirt, and a slight five o’clock shadow. He seemed in good spirits, grinned naturally, and looked happy to be there. He appeared to have a very pleasant relationship to the other performers, more relaxed than the typical “diva”-like interaction between top operatic vocalists and an orchestra, which was a bit more of what I saw last month at Disney Hall. Make no mistake, Daniels was extremely gracious and engaging, but there was definitely a little more of a boutonniere-and-lifted-pinky feel to it, at least on stage.
Scholl began with the magnificent “Dove sei?” from Rodelinda and again, it’s a testament to his voice and his musicianship that he was able to deal with the above blot on the performance like an Olympic athlete flicking off a bug in mid-long jump. Happily, they didn’t simply start off with the aria proper but began in each case with the recitative lead-in, in this instance, “Pompe vane di morte.” (I had my fingers crossed that they would.) It was not only performed beautifully but acted beautifully as well, giving Scholl the air of a storyteller standing on stage and spinning yarns for the audience with musical backup. The venue probably played a part in that, cozier than Disney Hall if acoustically grittier and giving the performer the opportunity to make real eye contact with the audience.
The following aria was “Se parla nel mio cor” from Giustino, which was bouncier but one with which I’m unfamiliar. Another opera to look up, now! Scholl handled it beautifully, with all the nimbleness that everyone has come to expect from him, and that is so uncharacteristic from any falsetto. That’s Scholl’s gift — that his falsetto doesn’t have even a hint of the clunky, flutey Miss-Piggy quality that usually mars the voice. It’s as close to a chest voice as any falsetto can get, and even if his upper register rang considerably more than his lower, he wasn’t swamped by the orchestra even once.
The third nearly had me clapping before it started. The program had listed “Va tacito” as the first aria to be performed, but when Scholl and the ACO started off with “Dove sei?” I supposed that they had removed the Cesare aria for some reason. I was thrilled when, after “Se parla nel mio cor,” a grey-haired man with glasses and a round face stepped onto the front of the stage carrying a french horn. I didn’t punch the air, but I came close.
Sure enough, I heard those first release-the-hounds strains, and I wasn’t disappointed. This entire aria came across perfectly, with all the cheek and cojones that Handel imbued it with. It’s a strutting aria, after all, and both Scholl and the horn player (Rob Johnson who is also Principal with Sydney Symphony) had more fun with the da capo than I’ve heard in the past. I suppose the ornament added to the da capo is influenced not only by the vocalist but by the entire flavor of the performance itself, including the orchestra, the venue, and even the time of day. In a smallish venue in a rather “live” room, not nearly as cold and overly “perfect” as Disney Hall — and with a posse of gutsy Baroque guitar heros behind him — Scholl’s da capos for all the arias were inventive, syncopated in places, and slightly modern, featuring a very mature rubato as good as anything I’ve heard in contemporary music. Nowhere was that more evident or enjoyable than in “Va tacito,” both on Scholl’s part and Johnson’s. Magnificent.
Next in line was “Aure, deh, per pieta” from Cesare, led into with “Dall’ ondoso periglio.” I suddenly got a bit of an impression during this aria that Scholl may have been fighting a cold; if so, he sang through it with minimal bumps in his path, and it speaks well of his voice and his acting that I didn’t notice before then. His musicianship is such that he can dance around almost any obstacle and make his performance come across as graceful and natural. (Well, I did say that this review might be an incoherent gush!)
Following this was “Oh Lord whose mercies numberless,” which was beautiful but did not move me as much since I tend to be more attracted to the acted operatic pieces with stories and characters behind them that I know, and I’m unfamiliar with Saul.
The last piece was of course the standard crowd-rousing closer: “Vivi, tiranno.” He owned it, singing and acting the aria with all the brashness you’d expect of a usurped king who has lost his last thread of patience with the man who stole his throne. I got the impression that the audience around me may have included more instrumental fans than opera fans, at least to judge from the “What’s a countertenor?” and “Falsetto, what’s that?” conversations I heard during the intermission.
But if they didn’t know exactly what that aria was about after Scholl effectively told them on stage through voice and gesture, I’d be shocked. Tone, acting, energy, and unimaginably nimble singing are all demanded by that aria; you don’t touch it if you don’t have what it takes — and he blew it into powder to standing cheers. I can only hope that, for the audience members who were unfamiliar with Scholl or countertenor-range voices, this concert had to have sent them running to iTunes or Amazon.com.
Following the intermission was Symphony No. 44 in Em by Haydn, a composer with whom I’ve been unfamiliar up to this point — and that’s going to change. This one was definitely a late-Baroque example, when the fussy ornamentation of high Baroque had begun to get infused with some more modern sounds, and it was a hand in glove fit for the ACO given their meaty style of attack. It was one of the best live musical performances I’ve ever heard — and seen! If they have this on CD anywhere, I’ve got to get it. The only more blood-quickening performance I’ve ever witnessed was an impromptu drum session during a renfaire that ended up getting several hundred people pounding on everything in sight and which included an enormous, drunk man as wide as he was tall slamming on a kettle drum that he could have climbed into. I don’t suppose even the ACO will start featuring that in their performances.
The final piece was by a composer I hadn’t even heard of before last night: Rameau. It was a fairly long one, the suite from Dardanus, not the standard allegretto-largo-allegro triad, and using the French markup that still trips me up when I see it outside of dance. Again, they knocked it out solidly and brought everyone to their feet — or would have had they not left the stage so quickly! I wonder if it’s not a standard crowd strategy for them, to finish and clear out immediately.
They did come back out and take their bows to standing applause, though. And I got home and immediately found their website. From there, it’s a short hop to Amazon!
So all in all, even with the above teeth-gritting annoyance, it was a great night. A pretty, cozy setting, lively performers that made a great impression, brilliant music, and one of the world’s best working voices alongside one of the world’s best chamber orchestras. I hate to single out any one part of the orchestra, but the cellos and bass violin made me feel as if I were sitting in the music. I imagine they’ll also delight the audience this weekend in Berkeley.
(Hopefully, since the hearing-aid feedback was pretty pure-tone, someone at NPR will be able to subtract it from the performance, or at least mitigate it, and it will be deemed fit for broadcast. If so, I will link it in here.)
- Event Page at the Lobero Theater
- The Australian Chamber Orchestra (official site with links to CDs and a DVD for purchase)
- Andreas Scholl Society (a very comprehensive fansite)
- Decca’s site for Scholl
The prelude to the whole night was a very nice dinner that I found in a restaurant called The Palazzio within easy walking distance of the Lobero Theater. If you go there, you must get the grilled salmon. The portions are enormous — this would have been enough for two. The salmon came literally carpeted in meaty, tender tomatoes with roasted garlic and fresh basil. Tons of fresh basil. I could have made a meal out of just them, but the fish itself was absolutely perfect and flanked by piles of fried sliced potatoes, not at all greasy, and delicious roasted vegetables (squash and carrots). I topped it with a glass of riesling, but I would have gotten a pinot grigio if I’d been able to find one on the wine list. A light red would probably have gone well, too.
Anyway, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had out, and I look forward to returning to Santa Barbara someday very soon, possibly this weekend, and repeating the experience. It was a beautiful way to start the night.