Spectacular Baroque Singing
Milwaukee Symphony guest soprano Yulia Van Doren, countertenor Daniel Taylor, conductor Nicholas McGegan deliver brilliant Handel, Pergolesi.
Daniel Taylor’s countertenor and Yulia Van Doren’s soprano, close in pitch but distinct in color, twined and blended in complex duets from operas by Handel and in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater Friday evening. Behind them, Nicholas McGegan led the strings and continuo of the Milwaukee Symphony so as to transform the orchestra into a Greek chorus. Strands of melody rose to cajole the singers, comment or to echo not only their lines, but also their nuanced sentiments.
How finely and sensitively Taylor and Van Doren shaded their melodies, and how alertly they tuned to each other and to the feeling of the moment. In the duets from Rinaldo and Rodelinda, especially, Handel sets the voices a major or minor second apart at critical emotional moments. The dissonance represents their heartache, be it the ache of excitement over new love in the first case or the ache of impending separation in the second. The singers eased into these clashes so as to make them poignant rather than harsh. Fine control of purposefully applied vibrato had a lot to do with this, as did the overall beauty of their sound. Both singers possess the bright clarity and precision we associate with Baroque singing with very appealing qualities of luxury and generosity.
Both also have great coloratura agility, a requirement for treble voices in Baroque music. Taylor flew through his coloratura challenges, but did not have the vehicle for display that this program offered to Van Doren: Amore é qual vento, from Orlando. Here, Handel challenges range as well as agility, and Van Doren showed plenty of power on the bottom. On top, she was astonishing for her speed, pitch in crazy leaps and running scales alike, and the fullness of voice through it all. She not only commanded Handel’s tricky rhythms, she made us understand why all that syncopation is in the piece at all.
Through the opera selections and through Pergolesi’s more solemn and utterly gorgeous Stabat Mater, McGegan and the MSO were much more than accompanists. The rhythmic verve, the buoyancy of basso continue, the detail of the dynamics made every corner of the music vibrant. McGegan cast each of Pergolesi’s 12 movements in distinct light of its affect, from aching, declamatory pathos to an optimistic spring in the step bordering on dance. The orchestra, like the singers, applied vibrato judiciously.
Associate concertmaster Ilana Setapen, so brilliant with Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 last week, took on the big solo part in the odd Charles Avison/Domenico Scarlatti mashup that opened this program. Avison, in this 1743 Concerto Grosso No. 6, simply stole a couple of fast movements from Scarlatti and added a couple of slow movements to go with them.
In the way of all concerti grossi from the period, the contrast of solo, subset and full orchestra is key in this Italianate work. So Setapen was busy on her own and in dialogue or harmony with other principals around the string orchestra, most notably principal second violinist Jennifer Startt. The beauty of their duet foreshadowed the beauty of the singing to follow.
Before the music started, McGegan gave drily witty accounts of the concerto grosso’s appearance in the novel Tristam Shandy and even wittier breakdowns of the opera plots. If he speaks at the repeat performance, at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 30, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, do pay attention. Priceless stuff.