Victoria Baroque Players, plus instrumentalists, Steven Devine, conductor and continuo: Works by Handel, Telemann and Rameau, Playhouse, January 15, 2016.

All photos by Jan Gates.

All photos by Jan Gates.

Consistent with the recent expansion of early music in the Pacific Northwest, the Victoria Baroque Players are now in their fifth season.  The ensemble consists of eight ‘core’ internationally-experienced instrumentalists, often augmented by members of nearby ensembles for larger concerts like the current one.  A total of 19 players were assembled in this ‘authentic’ orchestra, and names such as Chloe Myers, Natalie Mackie, and Janet See are familiar from their associations with Vancouver’s Pacific Baroque Orchestra.  The biggest challenge perhaps was to find an extra three natural-horn players to join regular Andrew Clark, all of them absolutely essential in the two Telemann suites performed, and selectively needed in the other works by Handel and Rameau.  An exciting dimension of this concert is that it was directed by Steven Devine, harpsichordist for the London Baroque and co-principal continuo player of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.  Devine has received strong critical acclaim for his recent solo recordings of Bach and Rameau and is also Music Director for New Chamber Opera in Oxford.

It would be nice to say that this fine assemblage of instrumentalists achieved full stride right away, but this did not seem to be the case.  Much of the first half featured less than interesting playing; somewhat heavy and over-inflected, almost as if everyone was trying too hard.  In Telemann’s famous ‘Hamburger Ebb und Fluth’ Suite, the best parts were the more spirited ones – including the energetic ‘storm’ – but the lighter moments lacked charm and musical cohesion.  There were also some issues of overall balance, and the horns did not strike me as being as comfortable as they would become later.  Nonetheless, the cello of Martin Bonham was consistently communicative, as it was in the second Telemann suite too. The two Handel Sinfonias from Giulio Cesare that opened the concert featured some interludes of supple solo continuo playing from Maestro Devine -- a delight -- but I would be hard-pressed to say that full Handellian joy and spirit sprung from the ensemble as a whole.

Some of these same deficiencies carried over to the opening pieces of Handel’s Suite from Il Pastor Fido, lacking elegance, but then a change was afoot: the Musette, Menuet and Tambourin evinced much more rhythmical and lyrical shape, with the strings having more feeling and communication when playing softly.  By the time the second half of the concert began, it was almost as if we were seeing a different ensemble. In Rameau’s Suite from Castor and Pollux, I noticed immediately how much tighter the balance was, how the dynamics were more fine-tuned, and how much more musical everything seemed.  Progressing through the many Gavottes, the articulation was consistently airy and found the right natural point and expression for the dance rhythms. 

The final Telemann ‘Alster Overture’ Suite emerged as a genuine tour-de-force.  The orchestra was fully warmed-up now, playing this striking piece with instinct and automaticity, and flexibly responding to Steven Devine’s intentions.  The antiphonal horn pairs were fully ready to make their contribution.   Supremely enjoyable: the playing displayed all the textural variety and cohesive musical flow one could want, highlighted by an admirable execution of the wonderful dissonances and ‘wrong notes’ of the later sections.  While the composer intended some of these daring effects to be merely ‘humourous’, I was even more taken this time by how path-breaking some of these dissonances are; they probably influenced a whole century or two of later composers. 

For all the slow start, it turned out that this was an absolutely first-class group that can play with the best of them.   Perhaps there is a simple lesson to learn here: when you have an ensemble of eight accomplished core players, and add eleven ‘outsiders’ to it, it may take a few minutes for everyone to get used to each other.  The final results were quite exhilarating.

© Geoffrey Newman 2016