I attended two fascinating daytime concerts this week, both excellent and unusual, and very different from each other.
On Tuesday, the weekly free concert at The Church of the Epiphany on G Street NW featured excerpts from George Friederick Handel’s biblical oratorios – namely, from Joshua, Belshazzar and Jephtha. I am far from an expert on Handel’s oratorios, knowing only The Messiah (because it is heard so often) and having attended a concert a few years ago by the chorus of George Washington University, which I loved, although for the life of me I don’t remember which oratorio they performed. I only remember thinking: wow, this is good (even though it’s not the type of music I normally enjoy).
Tuesday’s soloists were soprano Rebecca Kellerman Petretta and counter-tenor Charles Humphries. Frankly, I do not have much experience listening to counter tenors. A counter tenor’s voice sounds not quite male – it is the equivalent of a female contralto. I don’t hear much music written for counter tenor, although in the 18th century it was apparently quite prevalent, and Handel was one of the primary composers who wrote for this voice range.
Having said this, Humphries’ voice is extraordinary (not to take anything away from Petretta, who was his equal), and what surprised me was that his speaking voice is quite baritone. I’d like to know what his singing range is – can he only sing counter tenor roles, or does he do more?
(The musicians, by the way, numbered five and term themselves Three Notch’d Road Baroque Ensemble. They come from Charlottesville and played very well.)
The excerpts I liked the most were from Jephtha, a back and forth between, Jephtha’s daughter Iphis and her boyfriend/fiance Hamor, as she bids him off to war, assured that he will come back safely and that they will live happily ever after. He later does come back, of course, but her overall optimism was misplaced as she did not know that she would be slain by her own father, keeping his perverse bargain with God. (Yes, another biblical story with a lesson in it – a lesson that is impossible to discover.)
Humphries is English and said that he was last in DC about 5 years ago, but would like to come back and try to put together a full performance of a Handel oratorio. The entire audience would, I am sure, love for him to do this, as demonstrated not only by the lengthy on-their-feet applause but by their calling everyone back for an encore – something I have never seen before in an Epiphany concert.
That was Tuesday. Wednesday was another day.
And on Wednesday, there was a very special and unusual concert held in the West Garden Court of the National Gallery of Art, featuring a Swiss and Italian based group called Lucidarium. The program was of 15th and 16th century Jewish Italian music. The members of Lucidarium included three vocalists (who also doubled on some percussion instruments) and four musicians, playing Renaissance winds, lute, colascione, mandora, hammer dulcimer and other percussion instruments. Period instruments, to be sure.
Unfortunately, the program was itself was very complicated. Almost 20 different items. And, from time to time, it was hard for me to tell where in the program we were. Were we still hearing “La Istoria de Purim”, or had we moved on to “La Cara Cosa” or perhaps “Dos lid fun sreyfe in Venedig” or “Anello”?
Putting identification aside, the music itself could not have been more intriguing and enjoyable. Some was liturgical, some more like dance music, some vocal, some instrumental, some in Italian, some in Hebrew and/or Aramaic, and yes even the one piece in Yiddish. And then, at the end, when the focus had moved from Purim to Passover, there were two versions of Had Gadiya – one not very melodic, more chant-like, but with set movements for everyone animal and player, and the other (sang by the two female vocalists) not very jolly, but consisting of a mesmerizing and beautiful melody. I wish I could understand more about what we were hearing.
The results? I think I am going to pay some visits to YouTube, to see if I can find some of these and learn a little more.