Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra lived up to its ever-broadening reputation, as guest conductor and noted violinist Ilia Korol (who took Music Director Martin Haselböck’s place) and cellist Phoebe Carrai joined strings to create a timeless afternoon of musical delights this past weekend. The March 8 program, titled “Italian and French Masters,” featured music by Tomaso Albinoni, Antonio Vivaldi, Jean-Marie Leclair, and Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
When concertmaster Korol joined the musicians on stage and the strings found their traditional pitch, the very special timbre from the soloists’ instruments was immediately evident. My vantage was superb, and the acoustic properties of UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall were adequate for the small ensemble, although not ideal.
The program opened with the Italians represented by Albinoni’s Concerto Grosso (Op. 10, No. 11). Korol capably conducted the ensemble, capturing every nuance of the score. The energetic Albinoni splashed like a sonic aperitif that gave the ensemble opportunity to find a comfortable unity of spirit that would carry through the concert. Initially the sectional players occasionally overwhelmed Korol, and the violas found it difficult to be heard, but they found their target and ended in an extraordinarily precise unison.
Cellist Carrai brought to bear her international reputation as a performer, recording artist, and scholar as well. Vivaldi’s Concerto in b minor for Violoncello, Strings and Basso Continuo is less often performed, but what a pleasure to hear it played by such competent hands. Her articulation was understated but still lively, complementing her artful phrasing and on-target tempos. Her instrument sang gloriously.
Carrai’s intense interpretation and exuberant manner skillfully contrasted lively, happy themes with interludes of quiet introspection. She was emotionally engaging, constantly teasing the attention. The Largo presented with a wonderful lyrical theme, and the depth of this soulful and heartfelt rendition was truly moving. The Allegro was blinding in its speed; a few uncharacteristic harmonics inevitably attested to the blazing motifs flying from her fingers. It felt like she was relaying something important, while attempting not to alarm. The breadth of virtuosity and sensibility produced a warm, graceful gravitas.
The irrepressible joy of melody, as only Vivaldi, Il Prete Rosso (The Red Priest), could score, was brought to life as the nucleus of the program and embodied in the two violin concerti (RV 149, 158), each with its own unique character. Both featured a three-movement allegro-andante-allegro form – a tiramisu for the ears! I anticipated boredom from the two of them back-to-back, but how wrong I was. The contrasting punctate opening motif and complementary flowing melodies of the G Major were a treat. Korol’s lyric solo over a light pizzicato orchestration was a wonderful ending to the Italian program, and a clear demarcation to the rich French style to follow. Korol brought the full range of his expressive talents to the performance. With his mastery of baroque interpretation, Korol is singularly capable of bringing to life the string virtuosity of the composer – and he pulled it off flawlessly.
The choice of Leclair’s Concerto for Violin (Op. 10, No. 6) in G Minor was effective, like a carefully selected French vintage. Bravi to the organizers of the program! Leclair’s excitement of returning to Paris is evident in Opus 10, and Korol’s inspired lyricism and virtuosity brought Leclair’s mature “forty-something” exuberance en vie. His virtuosity was apparently effortless and mind-boggling in its precision. The various duos with the other members of the ensemble were mesmerizing and left the listener with a complex, lingering sweetness.
The conclusion for the evening was a lovely Charpentier suite in d minor: Concert pour les Violes. Charpentier’s brilliance as a musician and scholar shined through this work. The violins blended beautifully, but each was able to exert its own unmistakable personality to the counterpoint. The ensemble performed with impeccable attention to detail, from their approach to the trills to the ever-present dynamic contrasts.
The Préludes formed a complementary pair, the first lush and full, the second quick and light; a listener cannot resist inviting these charming tunes into the psyche to linger long after the concert has ended. The Sarabande was almost arrhythmic in its feel, but the contrasting gigue Angloise incited a kinetic reaction throughout the audience. Alas, the suite (and the evening) came to a close with a beautiful Passacaille.
The performers graced us with a much-warranted encore. The Passacaille served the purpose; it was even better the second time around. Korol was beautifully animated, and the blend and surety of the instruments were even better projected than in the initial playing.
The evening was a timeless respite from our modern times. Musica Angelica continued its record of providing Southern California with masterworks more and less known, authentically performed with scholarly virtuosity, in an intriguing program obviously crafted as an art itself. What a joy. Were my expectations unreasonably high? Yes. Were they met? Oh yes!