Under the deft baton and communicative gestures of English maestro Harry Curtis, an ensemble from the Spoleto Festival Orchestra pleasured a substantial crowd at the Grace Church on Friday with attractive works by G. F. Handel, Igor Stravinsky, and Josef Haydn. And they had some stylistic tricks and treats for us up their collective sleeve.
First up was Suite No. 2 of Handel’s ever-popular Water Music, written to be played to the royal family from barges drifting down the Thames River. And it’s been one of the smash hits of the Baroque era ever since. Taking the form of a suite of dances (hornpipe, menuet, bourée, etc.), the music was by turns sprightly and majestically stately. Curtis was in his element here, leading an authoritative and historically-informed performance that pleased on several levels. Not only did his strings deliver their parts in thinner, more searing “straight tones” (no vibrato), but he saw to typical Baroque-era devices like “push-pull” phrasing and dynamics, plus profuse (and precise) instrumental ornamentation. And — thanks to the band’s big brasses — they sounded simply wonderful.
Next, a smaller ensemble negotiated the rather trickier course of Stravinsky’s spicy and very agreeable Concerto in E-Flat (“Dumbarton Oaks”), a work from the composer’s so-called “neo-classical” period. Not only did he seek to emulate the clear and uncluttered classical style of Haydn (final work), but he tipped his hat as well to the Baroque era, specifically Bach. He even briefly quoted the Leipzig master’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in the piece’s opening passages. The main differences lie in Stravinsky’s more astringent harmonies and greater rhythmic complexity. Curtis and company brought out every bit of the music’s distinct warmth and charm while negotiating Stravinsky’s rhythmic shifts and other tricky devices with precise aplomb. In fact, it came off even better than I expected, given the players’ comparative lack of experience, but then the SFO never ceases to surprise me with what they can pull off.
Finally, we heard one of Haydn’s earliest symphonies: his sixth (of 104!), in D Major, nicknamed “Le Matin” (morning), for its opening passage depicting a sunrise. It’s the first symphony he wrote for his nearly lifelong patron-employers, the Hungarian Esterházy princes. While it presages (complete with his ever-present humor) the ever-purer classical form and style of his many symphonic works to come, a few traces of Baroque influence remain in this one. Chief among those is the “concertante” style, as heard in the piece’s many instrumental solo passages (violin, flute and bassoon, among others). Accordingly, our string players again delivered the music in straight tones, as we know was the prevailing practice at the time. And the violin solos, as I learned afterward, were played with a Baroque bow. And again, Curtis drew wondrous sound and spirit from his gifted players. It was a great way to end a terrific series.