Review – Symphony Nova Scotia

Great Handel Love Duets

St. Andrew’s United Church – Saturday, February 4, 2017

Now more than one year into the Herald strike, we still have no classical music reviews in our paper of record and it’s a darn shame. So, someone has to say thank you to SNS for continuing to brighten our winter, take our minds off the depressing news du jour, and bring us inspiring performers and performances as in this weekend at St. Andrew’s. Thank you!

I have to admit that the two words “love” and “duets” don’t really spring to mind when I think of Handel. Messiah, check. Water Music, check. But Handel love songs? Before Sunday, I couldn’t name one. Apparently I’m not alone; the SNS program notes that “despite their beautiful melodies and opportunities for vocal display, they are not often heard, and even less often performed on the stage,” further noting that the duets “present some difficult problems for modern audiences, most notably because the principal heroic parts are written for sopranos and altos.” There are lots of people who wouldn’t have a problem with that, but I digress.

It was a cold evening, but a good-sized crowd came out for the love, and also for an appropriately reduced SNS; Canada’s “gold medalist of all things Baroque,” conductor Jeanne Lamon; fabulous countertenor Daniel Taylor (pictured above); and, in her Halifax debut, dazzling soprano, Ellen McAteer. Wow – what a group, what a show!

It opened with the lively Symphony No. 5 by William Boyce, all jolly, sprightly and toe tapping (well, hopefully internal toe tapping). Nice to hear Garth MacPhee on harpsichord, who was luckily available as a last minute sub for the regular Messiah wiz, Ottawa’s Marie Bouchard.

Then Lamon introduced the rest of the program, noting that the concert pieces were little gems pulled from this opera or that oratorio, pieces popular in Handel’s day – but today, not so much. Her enthusiastic leadership is so inspiring, and her love of the repertoire so evident as she plays and conducts with great gusto and warmth.

After this, the love duets. We were treated to such captivating, sensitive and wonderful singing that all I can say is, “Ellen McAteer, come back, soon!” Daniel Taylor is, of course, always welcome too. What a great recording this program would make, in partnership with say… Leaf Music. It really was a musical conversation between friends, with solid continuo playing from cellists Shimon Walt/Hilary Brown and Max Kasper (bass), underlining the many beautiful themes tossed back and forth by these two molto espressivo singers. And how lucky were we to hear works like the great selections from Rinaldo and Tolomeo – gorgeous!

After the first two duets, the singers took a break and SNS violinist Celeste Jankowski and Jeanne Lamon played Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins. A little love-fest in a minor, this piece showcased Jankowski’s solid playing, and she looked totally unphased moving into this solo role beside her SNS colleagues. There was a beautiful second movement with a quiet section of the two accompanied by violins and violas, and too soon, this little gem was over, with Jankowski moving modestly back into her section. NSYO first violins are in good hands with this coach/mentor. Brava!

After the break, we heard Purcell’s music from King Arthur, the oldest pieces on the program (1659-1695) and these five movements really showcased Jeanne Lamon in her role as Baroque leader, dancing with her violin, bending and gesturing with her bow to the players, her whole being immersed in this music that she so clearly loves.

This was followed by three more works by Handel – Blessings Descend from Esther in which the duet was between the singers and Acting Principal Oboe June Kim; Ellen McAteer’s delicious solo piece, Lascia ch’io pianga (also from Rinaldo), and then a change of program, introduced by Daniel Taylor. Instead of his scheduled and anticipated Where’ere You Walk, Taylor opted to introduce us to a whole other kind of love, hinting that the legendary Cleopatra and her brother Tolomeo had more than sibling admiration going on.

Literally letting his curly hair down from a pinned up ponytail, he segued from lover to villain in Tolomeo’s solo from Giulio Cesare, in which this very nasty guy vows to both humiliate and make Cleopatra pay for her betrayal of him. Nasty guys and their hair being much in the news lately, it was definitely an uncomfortable connotation, but Taylor slyly asserted in his talk to the audience that politics has no place in art.

The solo showcased the strong dramatic abilities of countertenor Taylor, who effectively used a break in his voice to drop from belting soprano to a much lower register – inspiring singing and very creepy! Is he a man singing to a woman, a woman transitioning to a man? In either or all gender bender virtuosity, he was awesomely evil, perhaps the most evil when gloriously glaring in falsetto. Hell hath no fury…

Whew. Hard to calm our racing pulses after that hatefest/bravura performance, but Jeanne Lamon managed to slow it all down with the lovely Bach Air from the D Major Suite, and then the concert ended with Handel’s Caro, bella, performed with pathos by the two guest singers.

Before a well-deserved encore (duet from Rodelinda), Daniel Taylor noted how wonderful it is “that in these difficult times we can come together like this,” sharing in such sublime music.  Duly noted by the standing ovation, so well deserved for all these marvelous musicians. Love to see Ellen and Daniel back for Messiah, SNS… possible?



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