Atlanta Baroque Orchestra and St. Philip’s Schola celebrate St. Cecila with works by Purcell and Handel

by Mark Gresham | 20 NOV 2016

Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, St. Philip's Cathedral Schola perform Purcell's "Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day."

Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, St. Philip’s Cathedral Schola perform Purcell’s “Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day.” (photo: Mark Gresham)

On Saturday evening, November 19, at The Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, led by artistic director Julie Andrijeski, in collaboration with the Schola of the Cathedral of St. Philip, directed by Dale Adelmann, and the Friends of Cathedral Music, presented a concert of music for St. Cecilia’s Day by Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel. Featured vocal soloists were soprano Teresa Wakim, countertenor Reginald Mobley, tenor Thomas Cooley and baritone Mischa Bouvier. The program is scheduled to be repeated on Sunday, November 20 at 4:00 pm at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Roswell, Georgia.

In Anglican, Catholic and eastern Orthodox churchs the feast day of St. Cecilia is observed on November 22 each year. Public concerts of music in her honor, scheduled around that date, have been common in London since the 1683, when the first was organized by the Musical Society of London.

Saturday’s program consisted of what are perhaps the two best known examples of Baroque music which celebrate St. Cecilia, the patroness saint of music and musicians: Henry Purcell’s Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day (1692) and G.F. Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (1739).

Both works began with orchestral introductions. In the “Symphony” which began Purcell’s work, the orchestra seemed to have difficulty finding a consensus with regard to the music’s pulse. One wondered whether there might have been difficulty hearing left to right across the space between the cathedral’s transepts. By contrast, after intermission, the “Overture” to Handel’s ode was was secure, the ensemble much tighter and more sharply defined. That held true for the rest of the work.

Henry Purcell (engraving by R. White)

Henry Purcell (engraving by R. White)

The ringing sound of the Cathedral Schola, with a roster of 34 singers, filled the space easily in the louder homophonic passages without overextending. Like the instrumental intros of the orchestra, the contrapuntal singing was more clearly defined in the Handel, with the Schola’s polyphonic choral skills most exuberantly displayed in its busy, energetic finale.

Of the guest vocal soloists, only Wakim and Cooley sang in both works. Wakim did better and sang more extensively in the Handel, where she demonstrated an amiably clear and liquid soprano tone. Cooley’s appealingly lyrical tenor was also more prominently displayed in the Handel, although there were fine moments in the Purcell as well.

George Frideric Handel in 1733, by Balthasar Denner

George Frideric Handel (portrait by Balthasar Denner. 1733)

The others sang in the Purcell ode. Bouvier, with his deep-toned baritone voice, was the most prominent among them in that work, consistently heard well against the orchestra. Mosley’s flute-like countertenor was suited to style but translucent enough to nearly disappear in the texture at times in context of the Cathdral’s resonant acoustics — a notable exception being in a trio (“With that sublime Celestial Lay”) between himself, Cooley and Bouvier, who lightened up a little to better balance with his higher-voiced colleagues. Although uncredited in the program, bass Timothy Gunter stepped out of the ranks of the chorus for a credible duo with Bouvier near the work’s end (“Let these among themselves contest”).

The goal of “period” groups like Atlanta Baroque Orchestra is to present such music, through “historical performance practice,” in a way that Handel and Purcell might have heard it performed in their own day, on original or replicated instruments of the era. It was good to have an opportunity to hear and compare these St. Cecilia odes performed from that perspective by the ABO, the Cathedral Schola and their guest soloists. •

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