Baroque composers borrowed from each other with an abandon that, today, would cost them their good name and probably a lot of trouble. Friday night's Handel Festival concert at the University of Maryland's Memorial Chapel brought together a couple of the pieces Handel dipped into liberally for material for his oratorio "Israel in Egypt," shedding new light on the sources of that great composer's lyrical inspiration. The names of those sources were Stradella and Erba, who produced music more notable for the potential that Handel realized than for any brilliance in its own right.
The performances were elegant, anchored by the Smithsonian Concerto Grosso, conducted byNicholas McGegan, an ensemble whose pun of a name belies the seriousness of musical purpose and the brilliance of technical skill. For Stradella's dramatic "Serenata: Qual prodigio e ch'io miri?" the visual impact of the orchestral forces was dominated by a magnificent theorbo, a lutelike instrument with a neck that loomed over the heads of players and singers alike.
The singing throughout was excellent. The trio in the Stradella sang with a marvelous sense of movement and baroque drama. The solo octet that sang Erba's setting of the "Magnificat" was well balanced and provided some memorable moments, in particular the ornamenting in duet in the "Et Exultavit" and the singing of countertenor Derek Lee Ragin.
The concert opened with a set of three sacred concertos sung with a lovely feeling of line and blend by the University of Maryland Chamber Singers. -- Joan Reinthaler