CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE APOLLO'S FIRE CONCERT OF 17 NOVEMBER 2006
Pluckfest!—Music of Biber, Buxtehude, Schmelzer, and Others. (David Greenberg, Miho Hashizume, v.; Richard Stone, lute; Nell Snaidas, sop.; Steve Player, gtr.; Danny Mallon, perc.; Jeanette Sorrell, cond.)
A Considered Opinions quiz. What do the following words have in common?: giraffe, lilac, magazine, mattress, alcohol, jar. Answer: they all derive from Arabic. To that list you might add the word "lute," which stems from the Arabic al-ud. There, "al" is simply the definite article—the word "the." And the oud, fans of things global will know, is a fretless lute heard in contexts ranging from traditional Middle Eastern music to the jazz of Anouar Brahem and Amos Hoffman.
Language is one gateway into the complex history of plucked string instruments. Another is Apollo's Fire's Pluckfest!—a Jeanette Sorrell-directed program which traces the use of lutes, archlutes, theorbos, and baroque guitars across three European regions. Eighteen works by ten composers—such, if I've counted correctly, is the generous sampling Pluckfest! takes of its subject area. To those who attend for the castanets, it may be disconcerting to discover that the entire first half of the concert's devoted to music by two Austrians and by the Danish-German organist Dietrich Buxtehude. The plucked instruments? For this portion of the concert, dubbed "Ein Deutsches Lautenfest," they're part of the continuo body.
No, despite the Pluckfest! name, violins are the real focus of the program's first half. David Greenberg and Miho Hashizume are a study in contrasts, and the selections by Heinrich Biber, Dietrich Buxtehude, and Johann Heinrich Schmelzer provide an interesting test of their aptitudes. At Friday evening's performance, Hashizume was bland and academic in a Biber Passacaglia, but her restrained style seemed tailor-made for the Buxtehude Trio Sonata that followed. Greenberg, on the other hand, gave a colorful and imaginative rendition of one of Schmelzer's Sonatae unarum fidium, but then went overboard in the Buxtehude, in which his playing took on an oddly histrionic quality.
It was after intermission that those plucked instruments came to the fore. Italy was chiefly represented by Vivaldi's popular D-major lute concerto. And though I might have preferred subtler manipulation of tempo in the first movement, Richard Stone's performance of the work was otherwise perfectly agreeable.
But it was the third part of the concert, devoted to Spanish music, that proved by far the most rousing. Soprano Nell Snaidas sounded more at home in this music than she had singing Buxtehude. Danny Mallon added some nicely intricate percussion. And if there's something a bit kitschy about the stage persona of Steve Player, there's no denying his impressive fluency on the Baroque guitar.
It's a surprising and wonderful sight—seeing Apollo's Fire change, in this last segment, into the sort of little band you'd love to hear on Madrid's Plaza Mayor. In fact, you might describe such an astonishing transformation using another word derived from the Arabic: alchemy.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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