It was a history lesson wrapped up in a concert.
In his opening remarks at Musica Angelica’s Christmas concert Saturday night at the Beverly O’Neill Theater, music director Martin Haselböck contrasted how the holiday was celebrated 300 years ago with how we observe it today.
Back then, before monumental lighting displays and inflatable Santas, what joy and festivity there was to be had in the season came from candles in homes and cathedrals, and above all from the music. So Haselböck programmed music from the period that was, above all, joyful and festive.
One of the joys of Musica Angelica concerts, at least from where I sit, is watching concertmaster Ilia Korol’s face. He obviously loves this music, and gets a kick out of playing it. He beams at a particularly felicitous turn of phrase, and gives a sly smile at a clever compositional touch. He is continually moving and grooving to the music, and his enthusiasm is infectious. He’s also, by the way, a dazzling player.
Now to the concert. The one piece that was actually Christmas music, Arcangelo Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, is a little gem. Probably performed on Christmas Eve 1690 and possible composed years before, the piece is one of a set, Op. 6, that is seen as Corelli’s crowning achievement. And the performance was exemplary. Not as complex as Bach’s, or as florid as Handel’s, Corelli’s music is tuneful, direct, and beautifully crafted, demanding the most flawless execution. This it got, from soloists Korol, principal second Janet Strauss, and cellist Alexa Hayne-Pilon, as well as from the string ensemble, led by Haselböck from the harpsichord.
Bach’s solo cantata, “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen,” was written to be performed at any time of year. Haselböck tried to make the case for the work as a Christmas piece, and sure, why not? It is certainly joyful and festive, and it received a magnificent performance. In addition to the usual excellent ensemble, this was thanks to an amazing soprano named Teresa Wakim. Her clear soprano is not the largest instrument, but it's purity cuts through the thickest textures and she had no trouble filling the hall. Her coloratura was spot-on, and she sang with impressive musicality. Trumpeter Steven Marquardt was equally distinguished in his challenging part.
St. Cecilia's Day is Nov. 22, but it was nice to hear Handel's delightful Ode for this day, even a month late. The piece is made up of movements describing various instruments, the eponymous saint being the patron of music, and they are showcased in turn. Especially memorable was cellist Haynes-Pilon in her extended solo, and Baroque flute specialist Stephen Schulz. Wakim was joined by tenor Thomas Cooley, who sang with beautiful tone and lots of expression, and the Camerata Singers, who acquitted themselves admirably. There was a time not so long ago when local instrumental ensembles had to go outside of Long Beach to find a quality chorus with which to perform. No longer; the Camerata now partner regularly this group, the opera, and the symphony, and very well, too.
And what a joy to have this festive 300-year-old music added to today’s holiday celebrations.