Review: Nota Bene Period Orchestra

Nota Bene Period Orchestra 30/11/07 in today’s Record

If Saturday evening was any indication, its looks as though Dr Who isn’t the only one in possession of time warp technology. Those sitting in the pews of Parkminster United Church in Waterloo were treated by the Nota Bene Period Orchestra to a 150-minute sojourn to the early part of the 18th century. Modern orchestras occasionally play pieces from this time period but rarely, if ever, would they devote a whole concert to the music of Georg Frederich Handel, Messiah notwithstanding.

Handel was an exact contemporary of Bach but that’s where the similarity ends. Where Bach was studious, academic and marked every manuscript Soli Deo Gloria (to the sole glory of God), Handel was flamboyant, opportunistic and, although he didn’t mark them as such, most certainly wrote his compositions with the view of them being Soli Handel Gloria.

The concert followed the 18th century variety show format featuring ensemble pieces, chamber music, some solo harpsichord and a few numbers with a singer, rather than the overture—concerto—symphony template used by modern orchestras. As is customary, the orchestra got off to a rollicking start with an extended bout of tuning up.

Tuning is a big issue for period orchestras because the gut strings are hypersensitive to temperature, humidity and wear. To combat this, whole ensemble tunings are done string-by-string, Suzuki group lesson style, and all members are given a change to make adjustments between pieces. Although initially irritating, after a few pieces, the ritual functioned as a sort of palate cleanser, an auditory piece of white chocolate after an extended sampling of dark.

First on the program was Concerto grosso, op. 6 no.2 in F major (HWV 320). Leading of with a full ensemble piece was a brilliant idea as it allowed the listener to get accustomed to the orchestras aesthetic before they split into smaller groups. Period players fight about vibrato usage the way Protestant denominations do about drinking alcohol. Happily, Linda Melsted and her colleagues have decided that the middle road is best, keeping the sound warm when it needed to be and achingly unadorned when that best achieved their stylistic goals. Parkminster is an excellent acoustic and the 11 instrumentalists had no trouble projecting to the back rows.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Enns-Modolo was an utter delight. Her three numbers, from the opera Rinaldo, were a real treat. Handel was a gifted melodist and loved to show off, the fruits of which are fiendishly difficult arias full of extended scale passages and criminally long phrases. Originally written for a castrato, the glam rockers of the 18th century, these pieces are real showstoppers. Enns-Modolo rose to the challenge and delivered a truly spectacular interpretation, adding nuance and subtle phrasing to what is essentially a collection of pieces designed to scream, “Look what I can do!”

Carco sempre di gloria (HWV 87) was even more ostentatious than Rinaldo. A common parlour trick at the time was to hand a composer a piece of unfamiliar text and have him create music for it before the night was through. On this occasion, Handel really outdid himself, creating a vocal equivalent of a Paganini caprice. Again, Enns-Modolo worked her magic and created an interpretation that was much more than the sum of its parts.

Harpsichordist Cynthia Hiebert began the second half with a suite she assembled herself from fragments of Handel’s works. This patching-together-as-it-suits, is very much in keeping with the Baroque custom of stealing thematic material from oneself or others as the need arose. After a bit of a rocky start Hiebert settled in and gave an interesting, if speedy, reading of the Suite. Her second piece, Chaconne in G major (HMW 435) was very well executed. Hiebert is not note perfect but the excitement and energy with which she plays more than makes up for a few missed notes.

The evening’s chamber music was in the form of two sonatas played by members of the orchestra. They were very well played but were really B-grade Handel and didn’t do much to capture the ear after the virtuosic displays of Enns-Modolo and Hiebert.

Handel’s operas have enjoyed a popularity boost of late and the omnipresent Messiah is as likely to disappear from the repertoire as the Maple Leafs are to win the Stanley Cup, but it is not often that we are able to hear live performances of some of his lesser known pieces. Even more rare, particularly in a city of this size, is a full period ensemble ready, willing and more than able to transport us to another time.

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