Julian Wachner shifts his attention from SFO to Philharmonia Baroque

Julian Wachner
San Francisco Examiner

By Stephen Smoliar

At the end of the generously lengthy program that visiting conductor Julian Wachner brought to the podium of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, which performed last night in Calvary Presbyterian Church, he launched into Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1046 “Brandenburg” concerto in F major (the first) at a breakneck pace. This was not a matter of mere athleticism. Rather, it was Wachner’s way of putting the cap on an evening in which he continued those same practices of execution that made his musical leadership of six performances of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 27 Partenope for San Francisco Opera (SFO) such a delight.

Those practices involved just the right balance between a comprehensive understanding of execution techniques with a commitment to honor the expressiveness behind the notes themselves to the fullest. Rather than a race to the finish, the performance of BWV 1046 was an ebullient celebration of the very act of individuals gathering together to make music, as they most likely did at the court of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen (possibly with the prince joining them) or later in the more bourgeois setting of Café Zimmermann in Leipzig. BWV 1046 also concluded a survey of expressiveness in different musical settings, which included both the secular and sacred sides of Bach, the operatic world of Handel, and a virtuoso concerto by their compatriot George Philipp Telemann.

This was an evening that favored solo voices, both vocal and instrumental, performing in the setting of a highly reduced string section and continuo. The soloist who received the most attention was visiting countertenor Andreas Scholl. He accounted for Handel’s share of the program with selections from the HWV 17Giulio Cesare and the HWV 19 Rodelinda. From HWV 17 he performed two arias sung by Cesare, in which first he prepares to confront his enemies in the spirit of a hunt (complete with the obligatory pair of horns played by R. J. Kelley and Paul Avril) and later finds himself facing defeat with darker introspection. That same introspection also pervades Bertarido’s opening aria in HWV 19 (when the audience discovers that rumors of his death were premature).

Each of these was a highly personal aria, and Scholl found just the right level of assertiveness to fit the character of each of them. His chemistry with both Wachner and the instrumentalists was always right on target, while delivering all of the required expressiveness for the most dramatic selections on the program. During the second half of the evening, he transplanted that expressiveness into the sacred domain with Bach’s solo alto cantata Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul, BWV 170). That rest is, of course, death. However, Scholl’s account was anything but maudlin, dwelling, instead, on the Lutheran idea of death as the much-needed rest after the toils of a life well spent.

The energy of BWV 1046 could thus be taken as a more upbeat reflection on the concept of conclusion, complementing the enthusiastic energy level of the opening selection of the evening, the instrumental sinfonia that begins the BWV 42 cantata. Indeed, in the spirit of BWV 1046, this sinfonia amounted to a concerto in miniature, featuring the solo work of two oboes (Gonzalo X. Ruiz and Marc Schachman) and a bassoon (Danny Bond) “conversing” with the string ensemble. This concertante style also filled the middle of the program with Telemann’s TWV 54:F1 concerto for violin (Carla Moore), oboe (Ruiz), and two horns (Kelley and Avril). Structured around the dance forms of a suite, this was a feast of virtuoso solo work that paired nicely with BWV 1046. Still, nothing could match the bizarre rhythmic eccentricities that Wachner brought to the Polacca section at the end of BWV 1046, pulling at what is normally a routine 6/8 pulse as if it were taffy and lending an extra kick to the forte disruption of the second section of the movement.

As might be guessed, audience enthusiasm for Scholl was rewarded with an encore. Following his Bach solo work, he returned to Handel, performing “Ombra mai fu,” the opening aria from the HWV 40 Serse. While the overall tone of this opera is comic, the aria is a serene serenade such by Xerxes to his favorite plane tree, conceived to remind the audience of how precious shade was in a desert setting.

As was the case on Thursday night with the San Francisco Symphony, this concert had a pre-performance talk produced in partnership with The Stephen and Cynthia Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Last night’s speaker was Heidi Waleson, opera critic for The Wall Street Journal. While her topic was the “mainstreaming” of early music, she managed to weave a fair amount of introductory material for the works on the program into her text. Nevertheless, her dry academic delivery contrasted sharply with all that overflowing joy in making music that made last night’s concert both exciting and satisfying.