A Charming Evening with Les Surprises Baroque

The latest concert by Les Surprises Baroque certainly lives up to their vision statement, which says in part they, “explore unusual and intriguing ways of presenting Baroque music.” The concert entitled Music of the Hemispheres: Ben Franklin and the Glass Armonica’ brought together music that Franklin heard, including Handel and his contemporary Early American composers, with music played on the instrument he created, the glass armonica.

The thorough program notes did a wonderful job of describing how the program was selected, and provided interesting information about the composers and performers. The healthy-sized crowd enjoyed the notes as well as the lively chatting before the show, a sure sign that the series has a robust following of dedicated listeners.

The program opened with an introduction by artistic director Elizabeth Blumenstock, describing Franklin’s critiques of vocal music. It was clear from the comments that Franklin preferred music that accompanied the text simply, without ornamentation or accents that drew away from the natural word accents. The crowd chuckled upon hearing Franklin’s criticism of George Frederic Handel’s “Wise Men Flattering” from Judas Maccabeus. But that certainly did not dampen the listener’s enjoyment of the work. Sung with careful articulation by guest tenor Matthew Tresler, the ensemble played the work beautifully. I found myself disagreeing with Mr. Franklin on his assessment of the piece. At the very least, it is unfortunate that he couldn’t hear this fine performance before delivering such harsh criticism.

Blumenstock provided introductions between works, which varied in the first half from traditional Scottish songs to a charming String Quartet in F Major by John Christopher Moller.  This composer emigrated from Germany to Philadelphia, in the year of Franklin’s death. The music showed the charm of Americana while still employing old world compositional sensibilities. I especially enjoyed “Miss Madison’s Minuet for Solo Harpsichord” by Francis Hopkinson, one of the first American-born composers and protégé of Franklin’s.  The work, named for Dolly Madison, an is set in the key of D in her honor, and was played with great sensitivity and spirit by harpsichordist Ian Pritchard.

The final song before intermission was “The Antediluvians Were All Very Sober,” which sets the tune “Derry Down” with lyrics by Mr. Franklin himself. The crowd enjoyed singing on the refrain, and did their best to re-enact the rowdy spirit of the drinking tune.

The first part of the concert contained some humorous juxtapositions, leaving me thinking how lovely a simple Scottish tune could be when played on Ms. Blumenstock’s 1660 Guarneri violin, and how amusing it was to hear Baroque instruments while seeing the singer read his music from an iPad.

The second half of the concert offered something entirely different. After a lovely rendition of Mozart’s String Quartet in C major, K. 157, the glass armonica was the star of the show. The musical instrument was re-invented by Benjamin Franklin while he was in London in 1761, and he named the instrument after the Italian word for harmony:  armonia. Essentially a stack of spinning glass bowls, the sound is created the same way one can make music at the dinner table, running a wet finger around the rim of a wineglass. Performer William Zeitler fell in love with the instrument when he heard a recording in 1995, and then had an instrument created for his use in Seattle, where he was living at the time. In about a year, he had his instrument and learned to play it.

William Zeitler plays his glass armonica.
William Zeitler plays his glass armonica.

With one work by Beethoven and two Adagios by Mozart, Zeitler was able to show off his unique skill and deft touch on the rare instrument. The sound is quite charming, and sweet to the ear, allowing listeners to close their eyes and feel that they are being transported back in time.

Whether listeners are looking to hear Baroque music for the first time, or just looking to hear something different, Les Surprises Baroque is well worth a try. Their musical skill is matched only by the group’s creative vision in building new and interesting programs.

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