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Sunday, June 26, 2011

ARCHIVE  •  HISTORY  •  CRITICAL ACCLAIM  •  BURTON KARSON

Newport Harbor Lutheran Church, 4 p.m.

Gala Concert: Handel in Italy

Pacific Chorale’s John Alexander Singers
Festival Orchestra
Elizabeth Blumenstock, Concertmaster
John Alexander, Conductor

The Festival’s 31st annual season marked a transitional year. By necessity, following the February 2011 retirement of its esteemed founding artistic director and conductor, Burton Karson, the Festival was not in a position to produce a full series of concerts as in the past. However, the Board of Directors announced that in June 2012 the Festival would return to its traditional week of five concerts. Meanwhile, for 2011, the Festival staged one gala concert, “Handel in Italy.”


Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)
Gloria from Messa di Santa Cecilia


Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)
Miserere in E minor
Psalm 50 (51)


Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)
Sdegno la fiamma estinse
Madrigal for five voices

Intermission


Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)
Concerto Grosso in D, Op. 6, No. 7


George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi, HWV 189
Duetto da camera for two sopranos and continuo


George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Dixit Dominus, HWV 232
Psalm 109 (110)

This concert is dedicated to the memory of
Stanley Crandon (1927-2010)
Member of the Board of Directors, Baroque Music Festival, Corona del Mar

Reception on the Patio


n late 1706, an eager young musician named George Frideric Handel set out from Hamburg, Germany, on a pilgrimage to the great musical centers of Italy: Florence, Venice and Rome. During his three-year visit, he made the acquaintance of some of the leading composers of his day, including Arcangelo Corelli and the father/son team of Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti. In this afternoon’s program, we explore some of the music that inspired Handel’s budding genius — and some of the music that Handel wrote during his Italian sojourn.

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Alessandro Scarlatti: Gloria from the St. Cecilia Mass

When, sometime in late 1706, the 21-year-old Handel arrived in Italy, he hoped to profit from personal acquaintance with the most famous Italian musicians of his time. One of these was Alessandro Scarlatti, who, although born in Palermo, had spent his formative years in Rome under the protection of the exiled Queen Christina of Sweden.

From 1684 to 1702, Scarlatti was in Naples as the maestro di cappella of the Spanish viceroy. When he returned to Rome, he took on the position of music director at the church Program Notes of Santa Maria Maggiore and entered the service of Cardinal Ottoboni. His Passion Oratorio, set to a text by Ottoboni, was performed on the Wednesday of Holy Week in 1708 at Ottoboni’s palace, and this was followed by the first performance of Handel’s oratorio La Resurrezione on Easter Sunday at the palace of the Marchese Ruspoli, Handel’s patron. Scarlatti resumed his old position in Naples in late 1708 and remained there for the rest of his life with only occasional visits to Rome.

Although Alessandro was primarily a composer of operas, cantatas, serenatas and oratorios, he also wrote a not-insignificant amount of church music. Most of these works are for chorus a cappella or with organ accompaniment in the conservative stile antico. A small number, however, are in the more modern concertato style, with chorus and solo voices accompanied by string orchestra. Among the latter the most important are the large-scale settings of the Mass and Vespers written in 1720 and 1721. Both were commissioned by Cardinal Acquaviva for the celebration of the Feast of St. Cecilia at the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastavere in Rome.

The Gloria from the Mass stands somewhere between the through-composed settings of the 17th century and the socalled “cantata mass” of the 18th century, which is divided into clear-cut movements, each with a different scoring and style. It is written for five voices (SSATB) accompanied by fourpart string orchestra and basso continuo. In the faster sections the soloists tend to sing rapid roulades which that are answered by chordal interjections from the chorus. In the slower sections the chorus sings lyrical lines that produce expressive dissonances, generally created by suspensions. The only true aria is the “Gratias agimus,” in which the alto soloist is paired with an obbligato line for the unison violins.

The “Cum Sancto Spiritu” that concludes the Gloria is a virtuosic choral fugue whose subject, a series of ascending pitches in longer note values, seems to be derived from the intonation of the plainsong Introit for the Feast of St. Cecilia, which Scarlatti quoted on his score. BACK

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Domenico Scarlatti: Miserere in E Minor

Alessandro’s son Domenico was Handel’s exact contemporary. A precociously talented youth, he spent his early career in Naples and Venice. He is said to have engaged in a keyboard competition with the newly arrived Handel, after which it was concluded that the German was the superior organist but the Italian prevailed at the harpsichord.

After his father returned to Naples, Domenico flourished in Rome, becoming music master to Maria Casimira, the exiled Queen of Poland, from 1709 to 1714, and then maestro di cappella at the Capella Giulia. In 1719 he moved to Lisbon, becoming mestre to the Portuguese court chapel and harpsichord teacher to Princess Maria Barbara. When his pupil married the Spanish Crown Prince and moved to Madrid in 1728, Domenico accompanied her and spent the rest of his life at the Spanish court.

Domenico initially aspired to be a composer of secular vocal works like his father. Only after his move to Lisbon did he begin to concentrate on the composition of the keyboard sonatas that assured his lasting fame. Like his father, he also composed a certain amount of church music, especially during the years 1714-1728 when he held positions that required it. Almost all of his surviving sacred music is in the stile antico, his most famous work being a setting of the Stabat Mater for ten voices and organ.

The Miserere in E performed today was written for the Capella Giulia, and the lack of a Doxology indicates it was performed to conclude the service of Tenebrae on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week. It is an alternatim setting in which only the odd-numbered verses are sung polyphonically, while the even-numbered verses are chanted to the appropriate psalm tone. BACK

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Alessandro Scarlatti: Sdegno la fiamma estinse

A number of Baroque composers, including Alessandro Scarlatti and Antonio Lotti, continued the Renaissance tradition of writing madrigals; Scarlatti wrote eight in all. These through-composed settings of secular texts were probably intended for ensembles of solo singers, perhaps accompanied by a discreet continuo group but possibly sung a cappella.

“Sdegno la fiamma estinse,” written for five voices (SSATB), is typical of the genre in its dramatic alternation of recitative-like chordal passages with sophisticated imitative sections, and in it use of melodic figures, dissonance and silence to convey the meaning of the text. BACK

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Corelli: Concerto grosso in D, Op. 6, No. 7

Arcangelo Corelli was the most famous and influential Italian violinist and composer of instrumental music in the latter part of the 17th century. His published collections of violin sonatas and trio sonatas circulated throughout Europe. At the time of Handel’s visit he had been for many years in the service of Cardinal Ottoboni, and he led the orchestra for Handel’s two Italian oratorios, Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno in May 1707 and La Resurrezione at Easter 1708.

Retiring from his performing career later in 1708, Corelli spent his remaining years assembling the collection of Concerti grossi eventually published as his Op. 6 in 1712. Some of these may have been newly composed, but many were revisions of works written and performed as early as the 1680s. Corelli’s Op. 6 Concerti grossi gained lasting popularity, especially in England, and Handel’s own Op. 6 was clearly modeled on Corelli’s set.

The form as conceived by Corelli was based on the contrast between a group of soloists, termed the concertino, with a larger body of strings, termed the concerto grosso. The concertino consisted of two violins and a single cello — often performed by Corelli himself, his student Matteo Fornari, and the Spanish cellist G.B. Lulier. In the Corellian tradition, virtuosity takes second place to elegance and polish.

Concerto No. 7 in D begins with two fast movements, the first consisting mostly of chords and the second opening with fanfare-like figures in the concertino and closing with a chordal Adagio. The third movement is another Allegro, this time in binary form and built over a “walking bass.” The fourth movement, marked Andante largo, features short phrases tossed back and forth between the solo violins over a bass line that features octave leaps. The fifth movement is a fugue, and the concerto closes with a dance-like movement in triple meter. BACK

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Handel: No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi, HWV 189

The chamber duet, with a secular text sung by two singers accompanied by continuo, was cultivated by a number of Italian composers. One of the first things Handel seems to have done after he arrived in Italy was to acquire a manuscript of chamber duets composed by the master of the genre, Agostino Steffani. Curiously, this volume preserved the duet movements only, without the intervening recitative sections, and all the chamber duets that Handel subsequently composed reproduce this format.

The bulk of Handel’s chamber duets were composed in Italy or when he was Kapellmeister at the Electoral Court of Hanover between 1710 and 1712. However, at the beginning of July 1741 he composed two more duets, and these were followed by several others in 1742 and 1745. The circumstances and performers for whom these duets were written remain unknown.

Handel used the first and last movements of “No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi” — the second of these duets to have been written — as the basis for the choruses “For unto us a child is born” and “All we like sheep” in the oratorio Messiah, which was drafted in August 1741. BACK

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Handel: Dixit Dominus, HWV 232

When Handel travelled to Italy to learn to compose in the Italian style, he presumably intended to concentrate on secular vocal and instrumental music. Nonetheless, the earliest large-scale work he produced was Dixit Dominus, a setting of Psalm 109 in the Vulgate Bible. The autograph is dated April 1707 and scholars disagree as to who might have commissioned such a work. Dixit Dominus is scored for five soloists, five-part chorus (SSATB), and string orchestra and was presumably performed at Vespers on an appropriate festal occasion, perhaps even Easter.

There are so many wonderful moments in Dixit Dominus that it is difficult to know which to highlight. Almost every chorus is a contrapuntal tour de force, while “De torrente in via bibet” (“He shall drink from the brook by the road”), the penultimate duet for the soprano soloists accompanied by slowly changing chromatic harmonies in the strings, is one of Handel’s most sublime compositions. The closing Doxology, with its wide-ranging fugue subject, insistent countersubject, and even faster concluding section with octave-leaping “amens,” must have astonished all who first heard it.

Dixit Dominus is one of Handel’s youthful masterpieces, and the music reflects the styles and techniques he had observed in the music of the other composers on this program. The scale and sheer energy of the music are captivating, and while the solo writing is not as virtuosic as that found in several other of his Italian compositions, the technical demands on the choral singers and instrumentals are formidable. Handel condensed the music and tightened its structure when he reused some of it later in English works, but he never again matched the reckless abandon of his Italian calling card. BACK

Notes by Graydon Beeks

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