Review: “Alabama Symphony, Justin Brown, Sursum Corda meet up in the Baroque”

Dido & Aeneas

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Offstage brass and percussion heralded Justin Brown’s first concert as Alabama Symphony‘s music director laureate Friday night. Though the original purpose of Henry Purcell’s 1695 march (the funeral of Queen Mary) wasn’t exactly appropriate, the music seemed fit for the occasion, which would culminate in a concert performance of Purcell’s best known opera, “Dido and Aeneus.”

The entire concert was, in fact, a kind of Baroque ode, reaching from a 21st century homage by Thomas Adès to a period-practice reading of Purcell’s 1688 opera.

A performance of Adès’ “Three Studies from Couperin” was more refined than it was at a Masterworks concert in March, its free-flowing, off-the-beat rhythms forming a neo-Baroque, cubist prism. The orchestra, divided into two, delivered stylized rococo ornaments and antiphonal effects with confidence.

One of Brown’s specialties in his six years as music director was adapting big-orchestra music to ASO’s smaller resources. Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” was another example. A great deal of the inner movements (Forlane, Menuet) cries out for intimacy, so size wouldn’t matter in any case. But the scope of orchestral colors does, sparked first in the Forlane by fine woodwind soloists and splashes of string trills, then by the organic sound and deliberate pace in the Menuet. ASO excels at this level, so in the heftier orchestration in the Prelude and Rigaudon the focus turned to contoured shapes, suave transitions and crisp accents, all carried out economically and easily within the orchestra’s grasp.

“Dido and Aeneus,” performed in a scant 50 minutes, shifted radically to period style, adding a few period instruments to boot. The strings adjusted admirably despite the anti-intuitive practice of playing with no vibrato. Together with a richly hued continuo consisting of cellist Andrew Dunn, harpsichordist Lester Seigel, and Bill Hearn doubling on theorbo (long-necked lute) and Baroque guitar, this was a rewarding excursion going back more than three centuries.

The Birmingham chamber choir, Sursum Corda, gave a personalized account, several of its members emerging from the risers as cackling witches, sailors, spirits, courtiers and fairies, their sardonic laughs allying with the evil spell that befalls the ancient heroes. Title roles were sung by mezzo-soprano Deanne Meek and bass-baritone Douglas Williams, each giving robust performances. Soprano Wanda Yang Temko portrayed Dido’s sister and handmaiden, Belinda, with sympathy and strength. In what is perhaps the most beautiful of all English Baroque arias, Meeks’ sang “When I am Laid in Earth” with chilling poignancy.

Written by: Michael Huebner for (Alabama Media Group, The Birmingham News) on November 10, 2012.