Rare Treats Are Well Done By Bach Sinfonia, Handel Choir

Monday, October 31, 2005

Sifting last May through centuries-old manuscripts in Weimar, Germany, musicologist Michael Maul came upon a remarkable find. Bound in brocade was a poem honoring an 18th-century duke's birthday. Tacked on at the end was a handwritten musical setting of the text: an aria ("All things with God, without Him nought") that scholars confirm to be by Johann Sebastian Bach.

A concert by the Bach Sinfonia on Saturday at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church gave the Washington area its first chance to hear the newly discovered Bach piece, its text hiding an acrostic reference to the duke's name. Musicologist Daniel E. Abraham, the Sinfonia's director, led a vigorous performance by soprano Amanda Balestrieri, three strings, a theorbo (bass lute) and harpsichord. Balestrieri did full justice to the music's ornate melodic beauty reinforced by a spicy instrumental ritornello.

The concert featured another rarity -- a performance of "Alexander's Feast," an ode, or cantata, set by George Frideric Handel to a poem by John Dryden. (By sheer coincidence, the work was also sung yesterday by the Choral Arts Society at the Kennedy Center.) True to English tradition, Handel's two-act ode paid annual homage to St. Cecilia, the martyred patron saint of music and its power. The drama itself concerns Alexander the Great's banquet celebrating his conquest of Persepolis.

Handel's music covers much territory: Key words are adorned with operatic flourishes in twirling roulades of notes and repeatedly hammered-out motifs; and Act 1 is expanded with a concerto grosso that was briskly executed Saturday. The Sinfonia players and members of the Handel Choir of Baltimore gave a robust account of the piece with exquisite solos sung by Balestrieri, tenor Scot Cameron and baritone David Allen Newman, whose aria "Revenge, revenge" was electrifying. Abraham paced the work at a deliberate but bouncy clip, the music's energy intensified by clear articulation and a solid metrical pulse. The event was part of a four-day conference of the American Musicological Society.

-- Cecelia Porter

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