CBS does Purcell and Handel to a turn
Paul Flight, in his fifth season as artistic director of the California Bach Society, led a full program of two baroque works, Henry Purcell’s Hail! Bright Cecilia and Handel’s delightful oratorio, Acis and Galatea, at St Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco.
That space is a jewelry box of classical proportion. Slightly smaller than Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, it has a similar layout and acoustics, with high elegant arches and touches of gold. The columns are carved into narrow threesomes, recalling the bundled reeds that ancient Greeks and Romans mimicked in fluted stone.
The light blue of the ceiling panels would fit well in the middle east, where most ceilings are painted blue—to fool malign spirits into thinking they are in heaven. But the swooning balcony and artful glass may already predispose us towards celestial thoughts.
A small ensemble of period instruments created an impressive sound with two baroque oboes, two long antique trumpets, violins and cellos tuned down to that era, timpani and a harpsichords’ silvered jangle.
Purcell’s ode to Cecilia, the patron saint of music, filled the church with a sprightly nobility, then shifted to slow minor, violins plaintive with a flatter tuning. All they needed was a long-necked theorbo—and perhaps corsets and wigs—to transport us bodily to 1692.
Baritone Jeffrey Fields created a bass ground, his deep “Hail, hail, bright Cecilia” like the speech of granite. And Fields was not limited to the lower bass. He later climbed a circle of fifths, repeating “wondrous.” Under his top note were octaves of undertones, a stew and seasoning in one long note.
But even more surprising was the chorus. The 23 singers of CBS entered with true balance. In the counterpoint no line overshadowed another, and each line held a wonderful clarity—and despite their care, a sense of ease. Kudos to Flight, who has shaped these already excellent singers into top performers of medieval and Baroque music.
Flight, a noted countertenor, turned from conducting and faced the audience. He sang the alto line with fluid runs and a light purity. In “‘Tis Nature’s voice,” he passed between high voice and chest voice in every phrase, a difficult bridge that he then adorned with Baroque flourishes, before shifting down to a plangent minor for “…and straight we grieve.” Though distinctive for his embellishments, Purcell is most striking at grief, and his Dido’s Lament remains one of the most moving arias of the last 300 years.
Brian Thorsett rounded out the ode with a richly complected tenor, agile runs, and sharply defined diction. But in duets with Flight that richness made for a less successful blend.
When the chorus returned in the final verse to reprise the “Hail!” of the opening, each two-beat note rang out. The notes were just long enough to achieve blend and shape, with a lift that belled out in the space, and a martial fervor that suited Purcell.
And after, we settled back to enjoy the Handel, where soprano Ann Moss had a chance to show her stuff.
Note: Adam Broner has been in a chorus conducted by Paul Flight, and may be less than objective…but gets the inside scoop!