William Ford | 16 OCT 2023
The Baroque era in the history of Western Art Music lasted from about the mid-1600s to the mid-1700s. Its music is characterized as emotional and flowery, with many decorative flourishes, such as trills and terraced dynamics, within strict musical forms.
The twenty-five-year-old Atlanta Baroque Orchestra (ABO) programmed the music of two of the greatest Baroque composers on its season opener, Bach and Handel. The ABO is the orchestra-in-residence at Atlanta’s Cathedral of St. Philip, but the ensemble travels to various venues to perform. The orchestra’s opening weekend featured performances at the Cathedral on Friday and at First Baptist Church of Decatur, just outside of Atlanta, on Saturday. This review is of the concert at the Baptist Church, a large colonial building with a sanctuary that is warmly reverberant – perfect for the size of the ABO (about 25 players) and its period instrumentation.
The ABO, led by artistic director Julie Andrijeski, typically uses historically informed performance practices, which involve the use of period instruments, such as harpsichords, violins with gut strings, and other instruments authentic to the Baroque era. One characteristic of period-appropriate instruments is that they tend to be finicky. Not only are they difficult to tune, but they have a tendency to become untuned during a performance. Thus, a fair amount of time is spent trying to get them in tune, and subsequently, there is the possibility that the performance itself might sound a bit out-of-tune.
The program began with the ABO being joined by the St. Philip Cathedral Choir and Scola for a performance of Handel’s “Zadok the Priest”, one of the composer’s most popular and enduring works. It is both grand and celebratory, which is one of the reasons it is used frequently in the United Kingdom at public ceremonial events. The music features a four-part choir and orchestra. This performance was suitably grand, and the choral ensembles were excellent, with outstanding diction and ensemble. If one were looking for a perfect introduction to Baroque music, this performance might have been it.
Next was Handel’s Overture to the 1746 oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. It consists of several instrumental movements, with a majestic opening and various dance-like passages. The overture presages the story that depicts the changing moods of the Jewish people as a result of outside rule by the Seleucid Empire. Again, the ABO’s performance was very good, albeit with a few minor ensemble issues, especially in the violins.
Next, the ABO tackled Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from his oratorio Solomon, written in 1749. This is another of the composer’s “Greatest Hits” and is likely recognizable from its frequent use in various entertainment and news media. It is exuberant and exhilarating and played at a brisk tempo. The Baroque-era oboe parts were particularly well played here. The only niggling criticism is that the piece might have been played a bit more staccato, especially at the beginning, but overall, another outstanding performance by the ABO.
Handel’s Organ Concerto Op 4. No. 2 in B-flat Major, with Caroline Robinson on harpsichord, followed. It is one of six such concerti composed by Handel around 1735. It is in three movements: a fast, cheerful Allegro, a short, lyrical Adagio, and another optimistic Allegro. Usually, the music is performed on a small chamber or portativ organ. Ms. Robinson announced that, unfortunately, the organ available did not have the needed compass (number of notes on the keyboard) to play the concerto. As a result, she chose to play the solo part on the harpsichord. Apparently, the change was made on short notice, so she deserves credit for her daring. However, given the differing modes of operation between the organ and the harpsichord, it was not a perfect translation. At times, it seemed as if the harpsichord was just a bit late in generating notes (due to its plucking mechanism). Nevertheless, the glory of Handel’s music was still obvious.
Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068 was another major work on the program. The Suite consists of 5 segments, including a grand overture. The second segment is the famous “Air”, which most people know as Bach’s Air on the G String. This music has been blown into Rachmaninoff-like proportions by modern arrangers, so it was wonderful to hear it in its spare simplicity on authentic instruments. The final three sections are based on dance rhythms popular during the 1720s. Andrijeski and the ABO gave a top-notch exciting performance of the Suite.
For the final work on the program, the ABO was again joined by the St. Philip Chorus for “The King Shall Rejoice”, another one of those Handelian compositions used frequently for ceremonial occasions in the UK. Composed in 1727, it is grand and celebratory. There are contrasting sections that vary in mood, tempo, and intensity. Trumpets and timpani are included and help ramp up the energy even more when needed. The chorus, under director Dale Adelmann, Canon for Music at St. Philip’s, was again well-prepared and performed admirably.
This was a great concert presenting some of the best of Baroque music. Over its twenty-five-year history, the ABO has grown into a major cultural force in Atlanta and is one of the city’s major cultural assets. It now has a resident sponsor and a large donor base, two indicators of organizational strength. Congratulations to Ms. Andrijeski and her colleagues for giving such a fine performance. ■
- Atlanta Baroque Orchestra: atlantabaroque.org
- Choirs of the Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta: cathedralatl.org/worship/music/choirs