|A Baroque specialist with a flair for keeping the music fresh.|
Contrary to what screaming headlines over the past week have suggested, Cleveland is actually a pleasant place to be these days. Spring arrived late, but with a burst of fragrant blossoms and blue skies. The lagoon adjacent to Severance Hall is ringed with clouds of tiny pink and white petals, shimmering in tree-sized bouquets or floating dreamily on the breezes.
The orchestra’s weekend program brought some of that atmosphere indoors, with a trio of frothy Handel works conducted by Dutch Baroque specialist Ton Koopman. Concluding a three-year artistic residency with the orchestra, Koopman wove delicate textures into a colorful, full-bodied sound, capturing both the effervescence of Handel’s music and the power of his regal choral works.
The principal challenge of the opening piece, the first suite of the famed Water Music, is to not sound clichéd. Koopman avoided this by picking up the tempo and imbuing the music with glowing optimism, making it immediately engaging and a bit more suited to modern tastes. His genius lies in doing that without sacrificing an authentic period sound, which is difficult to get from an ensemble not exclusively dedicated to early music.
Though not for Koopman. He led a chamber-sized group of 36 musicians from the harpsichord, balancing light, radiant top strings against a rich Romantic bottom. Paying close attention to detail, the conductor drew ringing high notes from the French horns and intricate, carefully articulated lines from the woodwinds, which played enchanting trios. What set the piece apart, though, was its buoyant spirit and energy. Water Music can seem simplistic by modern standards, but in Koopman’s interpretation it sounded fresh and exciting.
For Zadok the Priest, a coronation anthem written in 1727 for the ascension of King George II, the chamber orchestra expanded to include timpani, trumpets and the Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus. The effect was electric. Hitting maximum intensity from the opening notes, the chorus added both volume and depth, underscored by rumblings in the timpani and flashes of color from the horns. Even in that wall of sound, the vocals were crisp and the English-language lyrics quite clear.
Zadok is brief, just a few minutes long. But it was a glorious few minutes, a golden ray of divinity smiling on royalty.
The chorus was also the star of the closing piece, the “Dettingen” Te Deum, written to celebrate a British military victory using text from The Book of Common Prayer. Sounding like a welcoming committee at the gates of heaven, the chorus was even more impressive in the quieter passages – angelic sopranos-only moments, nuanced support for the soloists. All three of the solo singers were competent but unremarkable, though to be fair, no single voice, no matter how good, could have matched the soaring chorale. The spiritual grandeur it evoked was irresistible, dominating everything else on the stage.
Koopman provided elegant support in the orchestra, punctuated by bright, clear embellishments from the trumpets. The conductor worked hard to give the piece majestic proportions, sculpting the sound with fluid strokes of his hands rather than a baton, and bounding around the stage with an energy that earned him enthusiastic applause.
Compared to much of the programming performed on the Severance stage this season, the Handel pieces were confections, light pieces to be appreciated for their immediate beauty rather than lasting impact. Still, they’ve survived for nearly 300 years. And in the hands of an expert like Koopman, it was easy to see why.
For more on Ton Koopman: http://www.tonkoopman.nl//?lan=2