Except for Handel's "Messiah," and perhaps Bach's "Christmas Oratorio," baroque music and Christmas may not go together in most audiences' minds. The truth is that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of vocal and instrumental works dedicated to the Christmas season by hundreds of 17th and 18th century composers. Publick Musick's first concert of its 2017-18 season, "Rejoice!," revealed some imaginative and indeed joyful baroque Christmas music.
Last night's concert took place at Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, but "Rejoice!" will be repeated Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Pittsford's St. Paul's Lutheran Church. If you missed the first performance, the second is worth hearing. You'll even have the opportunity to learn and sing a traditional Italian Christmas song.
The composers, all Italian, ranged from the relatively well-known Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti to such seldom-encountered but sonorous names as Bernardo Pasquini, Tarquinio Merula, Francesco Durante, and (most sonorous of all) Giovanni Battista Mazzaferrata. Their collective careers stretched through the entire 17th century and well into the 18th, and Publick Musick's program attested to their skill in writing cantatas and appealing instrumental music.
The vocal works were delightfully sung by soprano Ekaterina Gorlova, whose bright, clear voice and unaffected manner of expression suited them perfectly. (She also sang the music's virtuosic coloratura lines with great precision.) The most familiar was probably Scarlatti's "Cantata pastorale per la nascita di Nostro Signore," but she was equally persuasive in the opening number, Pasquini's "S'apriro di cieli" ("The heavens opened"), which was definitely not familiar -- this concert was apparently its first performance in Rochester. Pasquini sets an unusually dense and poetic devotional text with great attention to detail and a powerful flow of emotion. It is a worthy discovery that makes one wonder about Pasquini's other music. (Like all these Italian masters, he wrote a lot, and it was celebrated in his day, if hardly known in ours.)
Of the two works by Merula, the "Cantate iubilate" is a vocally virtuosic setting of a conventional "Alleluia" text, but his "Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna" was also a memorable discovery. It is a sort of morbid lullaby, in which Mary sings Jesus to sleep while having visions of the punishments the future holds for her son. The text is remarkable and the musical setting even more so: the vocal line starts simply and grows more and more dramatic, underpinned by an unchanging two-note pattern on the lute. Not your typical Christmas fare, perhaps, but as performed by Gorlova and theorbist Deborah Fox it cast a stark and compelling spell.
These rewarding vocal works were interspersed with sonatas and a "concerto" (basically an early string quartet, by Francesco Durante). Perhaps the most engaging of these pieces was the brief Scarlatti Sonata in D Minor, which featured cellist Christopher Haritatos. He dispatched the flashy writing in the sonata's central Allegro impressively, and obviously enjoyed the chance to play something besides bass continuo lines. The refined, detailed playing of the members of Publick Musick -- which also included violinists Boel Gidholm and Mary Riccardi, and Aika Ito, baroque violist -- demonstrated not only the delights of this rare repertoire, but also their skill at putting them across.