Smartsong

And afternoon full of trills and a couple of spills.

Concerts are full of surprises. One can go without notable enthusiasm to a concert expected to be so-so and find oneself transported with delight by a felicitous performance or an interesting composition. One can also go to a performance anticipated with pleasure for weeks and find it not measuring up to expectation.

Early Music Guild Recital Series

"Mr. Handel and his Singers"

November 29 at Nordstrom Recital Hall

soprano Julianne Baird, harpsichordist Jillon Stoppels Dupree, narrator Edward Mauger

The latter was the case with the first of this season's Early Music Guild Recital Series, in which soprano Julianne Baird, a singer of internationally proven ability in the Baroque field, and local harpsichordist Jillon Stoppels Dupree performed songs and keyboard music by George Frideric Handel and Henry Purcell. In between selections, narrator Edward Mauger read vignettes about Handel's life and the composer's relationships with his temperamental sopranos.

Baird's singing is as lovely as ever, her voice as true, sweet, and expressive, her vocal control and support phenomenal. In the very clear acoustics of Benaroya's small recital hall, it was possible to recognize and appreciate that expertise. Baird's every ornamented phrase, some with individual notes as fast and quiet as a hummingbird's wings, was clean and audible, a joy to hear. Likewise, the musicianship of her phrasing and shaping of each song lacked nothing.

But unlike most singers of artsong, who know their programs by heart and use eye contact and body language to convey the meaning of the song, Baird used sheet music throughout. The stand created a visual barrier, making difficult the essential, intimate connection between singer and audience. Surprisingly, in that fairly dry hall, it was also difficult to hear Baird's words. Though she sang in English, only occasional phrases came through to my seat in the middle of the hall. These are small quibbles, perhaps, given the artistry of Baird's voice.

More problematic was Dupree's accompaniment. The playing was not up to her usual high standards. Missed or messy notes were too frequent, and only in the "Almand" of Purcell's Harpsichord Suite in D Minor (and in the Handel encore) did she give us the kind of musicianship of which she is capable.

Of the seven Handel songs Baird sang, two are familiar to many, "Oh, Had I Jubal's Lyre" from his oratorio Joshua and "Rejoice Greatly" from Messiah; Baird did these justice. The highlights were the superb lament "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Rinaldo and "Oh Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me." Both equally slow, these pieces afforded the audience the chance to hear a veritable feast of impeccable Baroque-style ornamentation: the actual notes Baird chose to use, their length and shape, and how she produced them from the diaphragm.

Purcell, only a quarter-century older than Handel, had been dead 15 years when Handel arrived in England, but the latter followed the former as London's greatest composer of the era, building on his achievements and valuing his music. Certainly the fine suite (of which the last movement has been made famous this century by Benjamin Britten's use of it as theme for his "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra") fit well into the program. Purcell's own superb artistry as a song writer was represented in his Evening Hymn. Although not always relevant to the song sung immediately after, Mauger's readings about Handel, his critics, his admirers, and his singers were amusing, enlightening, and short, adding to our knowledge of the composer.

 
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