The full range of George Frideric Handel’s genius was dramatically showcased at a choral chamber concert, Saturday, co-produced by the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra and Early Music Voices.
Eighteen singers with the vocal collective VoiceScapes joined ten RDSO chamber musicians on period instruments for the Handel Celebration at the Gaetz Memorial United Church in Red Deer.
The Calgary singers, performing through the Early Music Voices Concert Society, tackled some of the most challenging vocal music written in Handel’s baroque Dixit Dominus, a setting for the Biblical Psalm 110. And they did it beautifully, filling the acoustically excellent church with jubilance, as well as some theatrical gravitas.
With the psalm’s Latin verses about the Lord judging nations, wounding kings and “shatter(ing) capitals in many lands,” some exceptional music was needed. Young Handel rose to the occasion, completing this complex and emotional work at the age of 21 while living in Rome.
There’s great drama in the “exhausting,” but satisfying piece, said the RDSO’s music director, Claude Lapalme, in his introduction. “It’s what Handel wrote while trying to make a name for himself.”
It’s easy to see why Dixit Dominus was a great success upon premiering in 1707. The 35-minute work is epic in scope, packed with tense emotions as the singers deliver verses about a vengeful God.
The nine operatic movements were mostly performed by a full chorus, except for the second and third parts, sung respectively by alto and soprano soloists. At times the singers were accompanied by the entire chamber orchestra, and sometimes only by the moody cello.
A soprano duet was also featured in the eighth movement — after an abrupt mood swing in the seventh, when Handel’s music collapsed with the tone of the psalm. On “ruinas,” or ruin, the melody became an almost dirge-like lament.
But Dixit Dominus ends gloriously, with a chorus of voices repeating “As it was in the beginning, is now and shall ever be.”
VoiceScapes also performed a shorter, more flamboyant Handel vocal piece, Nisi Dominus, written three months later. Lapalme joked that this “more compact, less dramatic” work was “what you do after you get the job” — which Handel would have presumably landed with his more weighty Dixit Dominus composition.
The rich and robust sounds of the string orchestra — the old-style instruments were strung with sheep gut — were more in the foreground for the six-movement Nisi Dominus. This work required a full chorus only for the first and last parts, with four male and female soloists performing the middle movements.
The celebratory composition contains passages about God’s delight in children: “Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them” — and the light-hearted mood was carried by the soaring voices and stirring string orchestra.
The more seasoned side of Handel was spotlighted in the concert opener, his Concerto Grosso for orchestra alone. The Italianate work containing English and French dance forms was written in London late in his career, for entertainment during intermissions, and to be published as sheet music.
Lapalme was probably only half joking when he cautioned audience members not to sneeze or it could put some of the period instruments out of tune. Much tuning was required throughout the evening. But the languid, dream-like tones created by the chamber musicians performing Concerto Grosso certainly made the extra effort worthwhile.
With the church resonating with the rich tones of vintage instruments, you could imagine what Handel’s music would have sounded like in the composer’s own lifetime.