Handle lineup of fervor, finesse

05.16.09
Les Violons du Roy
San Francisco Chronicle

Baroque music is almost never an entirely comfortable fit for big modern orchestras like the San Francisco Symphony or big modern venues like Davies Symphony Hall. But perhaps the combination works best in the sort of public ceremonial music that Bernard Labadie conducted Thursday night.

In an all-Handel program marking the 250th anniversary of the composer's death, Labadie gave audiences a glimpse of the musical courtier at work. Three of the four Coronation Anthems that Handel wrote for the ascension of King George II occupied the first half of the program, along with the Organ Concerto in G Minor, Op. 4, No. 1; the "Dettingen Te Deum," that thrillingly grandiose celebration of a relatively minor military victory by English forces, followed intermission.

This, in other words, was Handel in his most public and civic-minded guise - trumpets and drums ablaze, the orchestra mustering great blocks of sound, and the chorus lustily shouting forth heaps of royalist praise. Just the thing to fill the reaches of Davies.

Fortunately, Labadie brought something more than mere bluster to the performance. The orchestral playing was not only sumptuous but finely etched, and the Symphony Chorus, led by director Ragnar Bohlin, invested Handel's great outbursts with a wealth of tonal color to go with the nationalist fervor.

The "Dettingen Te Deum," in its first Symphony performance, came off particularly well. What's remarkable about the piece is not merely its celebratory zeal, but the formal fluidity with which Handel weaves together this 45-minute tapestry.

Arias and ariosos segue into choruses and back out again, tempos shift deftly but unpredictably, and the orchestra keeps insisting on taking a prominent role in the proceedings. Labadie kept a firm but light hand on the throttle, allowing the performance to gain the necessary momentum without going off the rails.

Of the three debuting vocal soloists, baritone Joshua Hopkins was the clear standout, bringing tonal splendor to the extended aria "Thou art the King of Glory" and later to the culminating "Vouchsafe, O Lord," and shaping the extended melodic phrases of "When thou tookest upon thee" with superb control. Countertenor Matthew White and tenor Frédéric Antoun were capable colleagues, and trumpeters Mark Inouye and Jeff Biancalana delivered the militaristic Sinfonia with gleaming brilliance.

The Coronation Anthems found the Chorus in excellent form, singing with triumphant pomposity in the opening "Zadok the Priest" and delivering "My Heart Is Inditing" sweetly, once Labadie had persuaded the choristers to sing out in the early movements. The Organ Concerto, with Richard Paré as the eloquent soloist, made an affectingly intimate interlude.