Pursuing their own version of the search for the holy grail, performers are always on the lookout for new concert and recital venues.Earlier this year, Beth Ross Buckley, virtuoso flutist and Artistic Director of Camarada, inked a deal with the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park to present a series in its Rotunda Gallery.
Although I missed the series’ opening program on September 29, I was able to attend Sunday’s (Dec. 1) offering titled “Java Bach,” a Baroque chamber music program that featured soprano arias from J. S. Bach’s humorous “Coffee Cantata” (Cantata No. 211) and a longish coffee bar intermission.
Considering the modest footprint of the newly refurbished museum, the unobstructed, two-story tall rotunda is a luxurious open space, one that comfortably turns into a performance area that is acoustically warm enough for satisfying music-making without distorting echoes. Its only drawback is Niki Saint Phalle’s massive, polychromed “Angel of Temperance” sculpture that is suspended above the rotunda. While my brain was asking the musical question, “Is the soprano actually ornamenting the repeated section of her da capo aria, or is she just attempting to look more animated?” my attention was relentlessly distracted by the angel’s bright red illuminated belt that blinked like a beckoning neon sign over a 1950s auto dealership.
Buckley’s program included ample portions of J. S. Bach, including Erin Breene’s sampler of movements from the Third Suite for Unaccompanied Cello, BWV 1009, and the Orchestral Suite in B Minor, BWV 1067, with its prominent solo role for the flute. But I was most taken with Attilio Ariosti’s “Cantata for Voice, Viola and Continuo,” featuring soprano Jessica Aszodi.[php snippet=1]
A generation older than Bach and Handel, Ariosti had a notable international career as an opera composer—for a time in the 1720s he worked with Handel at London’s Academy of Music, and it was in London that he published his six cantatas that featured the viola d’amore, a now obscure Baroque stringed instrument that produced its unique timbre with a set of “sympathetic” strings that vibrated beneath the bowed strings. Camarada’s resident violist Travis Maril did not play a viola d’amore, sadly, but used his conventional viola with such persuasive, stylish ardor that he could be easily forgiven. Soprano Aszodi brought fiery, operatic zeal to her arias, her opulent, brightly colored soprano voice commanding favorable attention in every register. She and Maril made a well-balanced duo in their solo roles, and bassist Jory Herman provided stylish, deft support from below. Dana Burnett fulfilled the rest of the continuo duties on a small harpsichord that was barely audible, but she deserves particular credit for unearthing this Ariosti gem. Brava!
Soprano Alice Teyssier mined the playful humor in her arias from Bach’s “Coffee Cantata,” and it was easy to admire her agility traversing the composer’s prickly vocal peregrinations. But her covered, constrained vocal technique made her efforts sound unduly labored. Buckley’s brilliant flute obbligato provided welcome diversion to this singer.
After hearing Breene wrestle with Oswaldo Golijov’s middling “Omaramor” for solo cello last week in the Art of Élan concert in the museum across the plaza, it was a relief to hear her performing one of the true gems of this repertory. Her account of the two Bourées called attenion to nuance and subtle constasts, while her drive throughout the Gigue exulted its dramatic flare. In these stylized dances the slight burr in Breene’s timbre suggested the viola da gamba, another typical Baroque instrument now obscure, rather than the bold, glossy sound the 19th-century composers expected from cellists.
Camarada’s Orchestral Suite in B Minor had the polish and internal discipline we have come to expect from this established ensemble, and Buckley’s flute solos were captivating throughout. But with the number of period instrument groups playing this repertory at high performance levels, hearing Bach on modern instruments no longer brings the level of satisfaction we enjoyed when modern instruments were the only game in town. I cannot imagine many musicians willing to give up performing Bach, but I predict that the next generation of musicians will cede this repertory to the period instrument players.