Classical review: For Music City Baroque, it’s all Handel all the time

We get to hear great viola da gamba players in Nashville about as often as we see solar eclipses of the sun. So classical music fans were excited about gamba virtuoso Brent Wissick’s appearance Sunday afternoon with Music City Baroque.

brent.jgpA cello and gamba professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wissick was at First Presbyterian Church to lead the city’s preeminent period-instrument group in an all-Handel concert. For those in the audience who were familiar with Handel only for his Messiah, Sunday’s concert may have come as a revelation.

Wissick’s program showed us Handel as an exciting composer of dance music and song. It also revealed the great German-born English composer’s orchestral side, courtesy of two thrilling concerti grossi.

One never would have guessed that Handel wrote the Concerto Grosso in A minor, Op. 6, No. 4 in a white heat of just two days. The work contains a second-movement fugue of extraordinary elegance and sophistication – as Music City Baroque’s excellent program annotator Jonathan Taylor pointed out, this skillful fugue surely would have pleased Johann Sebastian Bach. I was most taken with the third-movement “Largo e piano,” a work of such beatific calm that it has the effect of making time seemingly stand still. Music City Baroque did justice to the entire concerto, playing the fugue with clarity and precision, and the Largo with grace and taste.

Wissick and his musicians were just as successful in performing Ballet Music from Act III of Handel’s opera Alcina. The opera tells the story of how the title character, a sorceress, is gradually deprived of her powers. The opening dance, “Entrance of the Good Dreams,” featured flutist Jessica Dunnavant’s mellifluous playing over sinuous strings. Music City Baroque’s performance of the “Entrance of the Bad Dreams” was dark, forbidding and delightfully operatic. The final “Combat of the Good and Bad Dreams” conveyed a sense of complete triumph.

terriThe highlight of Sunday’s concert came after intermission, when soprano Terri Richter joined Wissick and the ensemble to perform the Solo Cantata “Tra La Fiamme.” Handel composed this music in Italy in 1708, when he was just 23, to words written by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili. Apparently, Pamphili was a huge opera buff. The pope, however, was not and had banned opera performances in Rome. Pamphili got around this prohibition with Jesuitical skill, by commissioning solo cantatas in operatic style.

“Tra La Fiamme” (“Among the Flames”) warns of the dangers of love, comparing the emotion to a moth attracted to the flame and the mythical Icarus flying too close to the sun. Richter sang with a beautiful soprano voice that was silky in its middle range and translucent in its top. She had a commanding technique that allowed her to toss off difficult melismatic passages with ease. She was just as effective as an interpreter, capturing both the wonder and danger of love. Wissick was at the top of his game accompanying her on gamba, playing with energy, vitality and joy.

The concert concluded with another concerto, this one the Concerto Grosso in B-flat major, Op. 3, No. 2. This performance was excellent from top to bottom, from the stately bass lines (performed on period cellos and violone) to the quivering, shimmering strings. Oboists George Riordan and Jared Hauser deserve special mention for their deeply expressive performances.

Sunday’s concert was Wissick’s second appearance in Nashville in a week – he performed last Monday with Blair School of Music professor (and Music City Baroque acting artistic director) Karen Clarke. Let’s hope Wissick makes a habit of playing here.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.