On Sunday, November 24, 2002, in the Chapel of St. John's Lutheran Church, Salisbury, Carolina Baroque Music Director Dale Higbee produced a fine program of music seldom heard even on big-city baroque programs, leading his ensemble in vigorous and precise playing in an all-Handel program.
Playing at "low pitch" on baroque instruments (albeit with some modifications: chin and shoulder rests on the violin and thumb rests on the recorders, and in a hideous tangle of too-short and too-conspicuous extension cords and music stands) were John Pruett, violin, Holly Maurer, viola da gamba, Daniel Hanneman, harpsichord, and Higbee, recorders. They accompanied Teresa Radomski, soprano, and Lee Morgan, alto.
The St. John's Church Chapel acoustics are clear; I was a little disconcerted before the music began to discover that I was sitting in a sort of "whispering gallery," where every word whispered in the transept used as a rudimentary greenroom was loud and clear to me. It was not a problem during the performance, however, as the whisperers had removed to the stage.
"Cara sposa, amante cara, dove sei?," from Rinaldo , sung by alto Lee Morgan, was a powerful, beautiful beginning to an afternoon of high standards. Contrary to Higbee's remarks, this is not chamber music, but theatre music, so Morgan's big voice was appropriate: theatrical and powerful, balancing well with all the instruments except the gamba, which was sometimes lost in the big sound of this little ensemble. The A section was warm and fluid; Morgan was equally good in the furious tempo of the B section. The ensemble caught fire, and the repeat of the A section was markedly faster than the first. Morgan's discreet and lovely gestures were as poignant as her singing.
Next came four dances, a "sarabanda" and an allemande from versions of Il Pastor Fido and a rondeau and a largo e piano from Ariodante . Hannemann, playing a Flemish single by Richard Kingston, was competent and rhythmically solid, as were Pruett and Maurer. Higbee, placed perhaps too prominently, played his recorders, soprano, tenor and voice flute, with professional polish. I found his playing comfortable and singing in the lower registers, but his high register work, in the fashion of English recorder playing of the 1960s, was chirpy and choppy, with forced high notes and occasional squeaks. All the same, the gentlest of instruments is a beast to play, and Higbee acquitted himself well.
Morgan opened the third section with Ruggiero's "Verdi prati," from Alcina . She has a lovely voice, with a huge unforced volume and a smooth style. I would have liked to hear her in a florid cadenza; I was disappointed that so little ornamentation was to be heard from any of the performers except Higbee. There were the minimum number of trills in the instrumental parts; Morgan sang her part seemingly as written.
Morgan was then joined by Teresa Radomski, who threw back her figurative head, threw open her figurative mouth, and tore off great gorgeous handfuls of Alcina's recitativo accompagnato "Ah! Ruggiero crudel, tu non mi amasti!" Radomski delivered with fire and drama and her enjoyment of the music. She was great! She got even better in Alcina's aria "Ombre pallide." Oh what a performance, full of sex and grief and sensationalism! This was a magic, hand-clapping, foot-stomping, brava-shouting performance! Brava Radomski!
Following intermission, the director had to be put on the right page before the music ever started, but once begun, everyone played well together, both in rhythm and in tune. This half was devoted to singing from Giulio Cesare in Egitto , relieved by an instrumental passacaille from Radamisto . First came the duet recitativo "Madre! Mia vita!" and its duet aria "Son nata - son nato." The pairing of Morgan and Radomski was perfect; their ensemble singing in the unaccompanied measures was absolutely superb.
The Ballo: passacaille from Radamisto was an excellent choice by Higbee to contrast the timbres of the voices and the instrumental ensemble. The playing was very clean. This dance was a good example of the way that Handel's genius assembled the simplest of musical ideas to make great music, a complete contrast to the way Bach took the most difficult musical ideas and made great music. Here Maurer came into her own, but was still difficult to hear.
The program closed on the high plane established by Morgan at the beginning, with Radomski singing Cleopatra's recitative "E pur cosi in un giorno" and aria "Piangero," followed by her duetto with Caesar (sung by Morgan) "Caro! Bella!" In "Piangero" I sat spellbound by Radomski's lovely, delicious, expressive singing; Higbee finally got his recorder to sing instead of twitter. In the duetto Morgan showed that her heart can dance as she sings just as successfully as Radomski. It was a pleasure to hear her rich voice. Hanneman's harpsichord playing was especially clean in this aria and duet.
Pruett played in every piece, pretty much non-stop, handling his instrument with aplomb, strength and competence. Sadly neither he nor Maurer nor Hanneman had a showcase role in this performance. I look forward to further performances by them in February and April of 2003. I also hope that Higbee will find more roles for Morgan. Check http://www.carolinabaroque.org/ for more information. And la Radomski will be singing in both concerts! She's not to be missed!
Coda: Higbee's bumbling, tedious, condescending, poorly-prepared and poorly-delivered lectures (fifteen minutes at the beginning and ten minutes after intermission) were totally out of place in this otherwise excellent production. Higbee should stick to making high quality music and skip the sermons or confine them to pre-concert time-slots.
Note: For a letter to the editor concerning this review, click here.