Saturday night in the Terrace Theater, only two weeks before Handel's 300th birthday, in an all-Handel concert played by the Handel Festival Orchestra, Giovanni Bottesini stole the spotlight from the beloved composer of "Messiah" and the "Water Music."
Giovanni Bottesini is not exactly a household word, but in his time (1821-1889) he was one of the musical wonders of two continents -- the Paganini of the double bass. And Saturday night, although his name was mentioned nowhere in the program, he became the wonder of a capacity audience in the Terrace.
His Gran Duo was brought on (in a condensed version) as an encore, with double bassist Richard Frederickson and concertmaster Sung-Ju Lee as soloists, after the orchestra had finished the serious business of performing a suite from "Ariodante," the Concerto Grosso in G, Op. 6, No. 1, the Oboe Concerto No. 3 in G minor and the Concerto "a due cori" No. 3 in F, all by Handel. These were all properly performed, with some fine solo work by Lee and Lily Kramer on violins, Evelyn Elsing on cello and particularly Phyllis Lanini on oboe.
The strength of this orchestra lies largely in the excellent soloists who are its principal players, and conductor Stephen Simon wisely gives them plenty of chances to take the spotlight. But this is a problem when it comes to Frederickson, who is an extraordinary musician, because Handel wrote nothing memorable for the solo double bass.
Bottesini came to the rescue with music that is hardly great but splendidly entertaining, compounded of sentimental tunes and virtuoso razzle-dazzle. Frederickson's left hand was leaping all over the long fingerboard of his mammoth instrument, and it spent quite a bit of time down below the fingerboard, producing notes that should be unplayable. He made the double bass sound sometimes like a viola and occasionally, spectacularly, like a violin with laryngitis.
Before the encore, the evening had two points of special interest. Some of the "Ariodante" music showed the relatively rare spectacle of Handel composing in the French style. The Concerto in F, which features two antiphonal wind choirs (each made up of two horns, two oboes and a bassoon), included some wonderful sound textures and interesting moments of dialogue, but the effect was somewhat reduced by intonation problems with one of the horns.
Simon has promised a full performance of the Bottesini in a later season. When it comes around, it should not be missed.