It did take a long time, but early music finally arrived in great style at La Jolla SummerFest Tuesday (Aug. 13) with a concert by Nicholas McGegan’s Arcadian Academy. This quintet of period instrumentalists under McGegan’s astute and spirited direction at the harpsichord served up a tasty buffet of sonatas by G. F. Handel and Henry Purcell and a slew of lesser-known Italian and English 17th-century composers.
In 2011 McGegan made his SummerFest debut curating a stellar all-Baroque concert at St. James-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, but he was working with musicians playing modern instruments. Bringing his Arcadian Academy to La Jolla, however, allowed him to demonstrate his first love: unlocking the treasures of early music on the instruments for which they were written, and performing the music as closely to period style as historical scholarship and performance insight allow.
Of course, playing a period instrument in unequal temperament is only the beginning, and it was clear from the first salvo of brilliant figurations from violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock and Lisa Weiss in a spirited “Bergamasca” by Marco Uccellini that we were in the presence of virtuoso performers from the same echelon we have come to expect of the traditional SummerFest musicians.
The violinists were supported by cellist Phoebe Carrai, whose prowess came to the fore executing the fleet complexities of Handel’s bass lines in his E Major Sonata, Op. 2, No. 9. Infusing this resonant bowed string texture were two plucked string instruments, David Tayler on the theorbo (a large lute) and MeGegan’s harpsichord. The burnished but prickly sonority of this consort of bowed and plucked strings, the Baroque counterpart to the Enlightement’s smoothly balanced string quartet, may strike the ear oddly at first, but in the quickly changing variation sets and short, meandering sonatas written for it, this timbre proves its worth.[php snippet=1]
With the exception of Tayler’s contemplative account of Alfonso Ferrabosco’s “Pavan” for solo lute and McGegan’s pellucid interpretation of Matthew Locke’s G Minor Suite for harpsichord, all five Arcadian Academy members played together in the rest of the program. Notable were Salamone Rossi’s Dialogue Sonata (Dialogo detta La Viena), where the violinists were placed on opposite sides of the stage like singers in an opera and carried on a lively instrumental conversation, and Nicola Matteis’ puckish Suite in E Minor, a crazy quilt of eight short, quirky movements.
It was easy to admire the dense counterpoint of Henry Purcell’s “Sonata in III Parts,” as well as its moments of sublime pathos, although none of these earlier works displayed the gravitas and imposing architecture of Handel’s E Major Sonata. The discipline of a lesser ensemble might have frayed coping with Antonio Vivaldi’s rowdy, ostentatious display in his Variations on “La Follia,” but the Arcadian Academy’s unflappable ensemble carried them through without breaking a sweat.
Perhaps the next time SummerFest features an early music group, vocalists will be a part of the music-making. The scale of early music and the human voice are truly made for each other.