NCC: George Frideric and His Frenemies
Christ and St. Luke's Church, Norfolk
September 18, 2017
Review by Adelaide Coles
On the windswept night of September 18 (thank you, Hurricane José!), I attended an intriguingly-named concert at Christ and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Norfolk. The Norfolk Chamber Consort began their 49th Season with George Frideric and His Frenemies, a program based around Handel’s rivalries with Arcangelo Corelli, Nicola Porpora, and Johann Mattheson. The NCC is known throughout Hampton Roads for its polished performances of virtuosic works by famous and not-so-famous composers. This concert was a phenomenal case in point!
This concert was dedicated to the memory of M.D. Ridge (1938-2017), who passed in June. A liturgical composer, writer, editor, and music reviewer, M.D. attended a wide spectrum of performances, and shared her reviews on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From The Other Side of the Footlights.” I enjoyed chatting with her after many concerts, and will miss her thoughtful commentary and wit. [Her reviews are archived online at
In a pre-concert talk, NCC’s Artistic Co-Director Andrey Kasparov recreated the musical scene in early 18th-century London. Of note was the emergence of an anti-Handel clique, leading to Porpora’s bitter (and failed) attempt to drive Handel out of the Italian opera genre, and the fateful sword duel in 1705 between lifelong friends Mattheson and Handel. For unknown reasons, the two took part in a furious duel, and, if not for a deflection off an auspiciously-placed metal button, the world would have never known many of Handel’s masterworks. I think I speak for many other music lovers when I say, “Hallelujah!”
As a secondary theme, the concert explored the four different composers’ interpretations of the chaconne/passacaglia form (a musical form of continuous variation). Kasparov encouraged the audience to listen to the music with discerning ears and to observe the personal way each composer employed the form.
Opening the concert was Arcangelo Corelli’s Violin Sonata in D Minor, Op. 5, No. 12, composed in 1700. This is an unusual Baroque sonata, as it is actually a set of variations on La Folia, a tune popular since Medieval times. The piece does not match the typical sonatas of the era in a harmonic or structural sense. One wonders why Corelli would call it a sonata at all. And yet, the title seems to have more in common with the original Italian meaning of the word sonore— to make sound— than the prescribed tenets of the from. Jumping forward two-hundred fifty years, Stravinsky would experiment similarly with the meaning of the word symphony.
The “sonata” began with a clear, lightly ornamented statement of the chaconne by the violin, accompanied by the cello and harpsichord. Then, each of the variations took turns deconstructing the melody and harmonic progression and rebuilding them piece by piece. Violinist Gretchen Loyola led the trio through the first variations, her bright and clear tone prominent through sustained notes, precise arpeggios and ornaments, and exhilarating double stops. Loyola engaged cellist Jeff Phelps in a compelling duet, blending melodies and countermelodies in a fast-paced polyphonic dialogue.
As the chaconne unfolded, the cello asserted itself with capering and cascading arpeggios, while the harpsichord provided a backdrop to the heightening drama. Harpsichordist Oksana Lutsyshyn matched the strings’ character remarkably, and enabled Phelps to alternate between continuo accompaniment and partner to the violin with admirable confidence.
The high point of the drama occurred around two-thirds of the way through the piece. After several cycles of fast and slow variations, the movement ceased. The texture was stripped bare, leaving only a sparse cello bass line and murmuring harpsichord continuo. The chaconne took on a monastic quality. The violin cautiously reentered, held notes suspended above roiling motion in the continuo. The tension heightened as Lutsyshyn layered fiendish harpsichord trills into the texture. Finally, the dam burst, and with decisive motion, the trio launched into the exciting final variations.
It was obvious to this listener that all three performers possess a great love for Baroque music; their appreciation of the style shone through every melodic contour, dynamic contrast, and articulation. I commend them on their thoughtful interpretation of a piece over three hundred years old, and find myself marveling at the ease in which music from the Baroque era seems to, more and more, resonate in the ear of the 21st-century listener.
Next on the program were three arias, the first, Alto Giove (1735), by Nicola Porpora. Out came eight instrumentalists—Harvey Stokes and Sandra Richards on oboe, Gretchen Loyola and Anna Dobrzyn on violin, Anastasia Migliozzi on viola, Jeff Phelps on cello, Madeline Dietrich on double bass, and Oksana Lutsyshyn on harpsichord. They were joined by soprano Bianca Hall. As the ensemble settled themselves into their seats, I felt myself tense with worry—what would the balance be like? The open, echoey venue is a notoriously difficult space to tame, magnifying any discord in an ensemble, and blending most spoken and sung words into a syrupy pudding. How would a solo vocalist on top of multiple instrument families fare tonight?
Conductor Andrey Kasparov raised his baton and the ensemble came to life, the first notes thrumming out like restless heartbeats, the hall resonating with unexpected modern dramatic tension. My jaw dropped—this was written in 1735? At the entry of the vocalist, all my doubts about the balance vanished. Bianca Hall’s pure, unaffected voice floated effortlessly over the ensemble’s undulating waves, proclaiming thanks to the god Jupiter for the gift of immortality.
Kasparov skillfully coaxed a subtle ebb and flow of dynamic expression from the ensemble that precisely complemented Hall’s singing, at times growing almost imperceptibly until the room was awash with all-encompassing sound. The strings blended fantastically, with particular recognition to bassist Madeline Dietrich, whose continuo pairing with cellist Jeff Phelps generated an otherworldly richness of color to the piece.
The aria ended and the air shimmered. I was hooked.
The second aria, V’adoro pupille (I adore you, eyes), came from Handel’s opera Guilio Cesare in Egitto. Handel’s work tugged at the heart strings unabashedly and hit all the right emotional notes. He even doubled the vocal line in the oboe, for a dash of “18th-century exoticism”—as if an oboe could represent an entire foreign culture within a cookie-cutter Italian opera setting. I started to see how Porpora and his Italian cohort could view Handel’s commandeering of their art form with such disdain; compared to Porpora’s understated musical reflections, Handel packaged up an easily-consumable experience, topped it with a pink bow, and reaped the benefits of an adoring public. Ah, pop music in the 1700s! Bianca Hall’s resplendent tone lent Cleopatra’s aria an understated elegance perhaps beyond its musical merits.
The third aria, Mentre rendo a te la vita (While I give you life), came from Porpora’s cantata Angelica (1720), which tells the story of a beautiful eastern princess who falls in love with a poor soldier. The violins took greater prominence in the often sparse texture, building to controlled moments of passion. As Angelica, Hall grieves in empathy as she binds her lover’s wounds, and blames Cupid for scheming to cause her to fall in love with someone destined to cause her heartache. A welcome addition to the faculty at Old Dominion University, Hall is the Early Music specialist, succeeding the late Lee Teply. I wish he could have been in attendance.
The next work on the program saw the ensemble join with stalwart Hampton Roads organist James Kosnik for a delightful performance of Handel’s Concerto The Cuckoo and the Nightingale (1739, rev. 1761.) The piece begins with a short Larghetto about as stately as, well, a troupe of marching cuckoos, oboes gleefully adding to the squawking. Next, a comical Allegro, full of call-and-response dialogues between the organ and ensemble. Initially, the organ solos are blatant parody of the cuckoo’s call, but as the piece unfolds, Handel can’t resist showing off his polyphonic prowess, weaving the birdsong in and out of dizzying contrapuntal lines.
The second half of the piece tells the nightingale’s side of the story. In solos throughout the Larghetto Sicilienne, the organ takes on the venerable temperament of a bird of gravitas, solemnly peering down upon the uncouth cuckoo. In the final Allegro, the nightingale proves that it, too, can have fun, albeit in a right proper way, practically lecturing the cuckoo, “This is how it’s done!” I imagined a dignified aviary to-do in the most majestic tree on the Kensington Palace grounds. Kosnik’s finessed articulations and voicing shined in this movement.
Opening the second half of the program, harpsichordist Lutsyshyn performed Handel’s esteemed G Minor Suite, HWV 432, which ends with a passacaglia. The nearly 20-minute piece was a roller coaster of emotion. Dancing up and down spiraling staircases and overflowing sequences, Lutsyshyn made the virtuosic final movement sound effortless (which it most certainly wasn’t), an astounding feat considering the blazing tempi she took in the final variations. Lutsyshyn was assisted by Kasparov, who added to the polished interpretation by changing the registrations on the instrument for dynamic and structural expression.
The penultimate piece was a fascinating sonata for three flutes by Handel’s friend (and one-time duelist) Johann Mattheson, composed in 1708. Flautists Wayla Chambo, Bonnie Kim, and Hyorim Kim took center stage for this unusual piece, which distinctly lacked a continuo part. Each member of the trio matched the others’ timbre splendidly, and they all played with great care to recreate the Baroque character. I was enthralled by the harmonic language of this delicate piece; it was full of unexpected resolutions, musica ficta, textures, and colors, like an exquisite lace tapestry. Mattheson proves to be the most experimental composer of the evening, beginning the chaconne with all three flutes in unison in a low tessitura. Sublime!
Lastly, resident organist of Christ and St. Luke’s church Kevin Kwan treated us to a wonderful exhibition of the variety of sounds the church’s beautiful antique instrument can produce. He was joined by the ensemble and conductor Kasparov for Handel’s Concerto in B-flat Major Op. 7, No. 1, HWV 306 (1740). The concerto opened with a grand Andante referencing the same passacaglia theme as the harpsichord suite. Next came an enigmatic Largo, with the organ pedals' sound blending with the dark, resonant sonorities from the bass, cello, and harpsichord. The final movements were taken at a sprightly Allegro tempo, separated by an ad lib Larghetto. Here Handel allows the organist to choose his own interpretations, tempi and articulations of the written notes. Bursting with syncopated rhythms and offset entrances, the challenge was met gleefully by the ensemble and soloist. Kwan’s meticulous voicing sparkled, and he skillfully traversed the highest keys down to the bottom register with ease. It was a spirited end to a delightful evening!
Adelaide Coles is an Australian-American composer from Virginia Beach. She graduated summa cum laude from ODU in 2012 with a bachelor's degree and took her master's from the Sydney Conservatorium in 2016. Her Quartet for December was runner-up for the 2014 Australian Fairweather Family Prize.
She has occasionally written reviews for Artsong Update and we hope for ever-increasing words from her.
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