The 10th Maryland Handel Festival came to a close Sunday evening at the University of Maryland's Memorial Chapel with a performance of Handel's rarely heard oratorio "Joseph and His Brethren." It was a fitting conclusion to six days of excellent music making laced with numerous panel discussions for those who like their Handeliana undiluted.
That "Joseph" should languish in obscurity for the better part of 200 years comes as no surprise to anyone reading the even more obscure, Bible-based libretto written by one of Handel's contemporaries, James Miller. Hearing the music, much of which is excellent in its own right (and all of which was superbly performed Sunday), one only wishes that Miller had worked a little harder.
The University of Maryland Chorus sang with dignifying power and beauty backed by members of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Paul Traver. The six guest soloists could not have asked for finer support.
Countertenor Graham Pushee (Joseph) and soprano Rebecca Littig (Asenath, daughter of the High Priest) were equally outstanding. Pushee's voice floated across "The Peasant Tastes the Sweets of Life" with mesmerizing tenderness and grace; Littig's silvery soprano glittered through "Prophetic Raptures Swell My Breast." But in truth, all the soloists from baritone David Evitts (Pharaoh) to soprano Allis Druffel (Benjamin) were praiseworthy.
No doubt some in the audience were already familiar with the talents of two soloists, tenor Robert Petillo and mezzo-soprano Molly Donnelly, from their performance in the Festival's Young Artist Recital held two days earlier in the Tawes Recital Hall.
There, joined by other winners of the Daniel L. Pomeroy Memorial Prize, an annual award given at the University of Maryland for excellence in 18th-century musical studies, Petillo and Donnelly demonstrated the kind of skills that suggest bright futures.
Warmth of tone, power of projection and good dramatic sense are valuable commodities for any singer, and happily for these young artists, both are in abundance. One was equally impressed by soprano Jennifer Wynne-Post's fine vibrato and stage presence: her choice of scenes from "Semele," which she sang with Petillo on Friday, were well-rehearsed gems. Countertenor Jay G. White, this year's winner of the Pomeroy Prize (and the first undergraduate to be honored), was a little less consistent. Though a little too cautious in his first two selections, White rallied nicely in "Stille amare" and "Hymen, haste," gliding from one magnificent melisma to the next.
For sheer beauty of tone one would be hard pressed to beat Anner Bylsma's festival recital Thursday night at the Adele Stamp Union building. The baroque cello has less power than its contemporary relative, but so what? Listening to Bylsma and harpsichordist John Gibbons illuminate some Vivaldi and Boccherini sonatas or hearing Bylsma explore the architecture of a Bach's solo cello suite brought its own rewards.