Easter Sunday brought a sumptuous feast in the form of Handel's Solomon, performed at Alice Tully Hall this afternoon by conductor René Jacobs, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and an outstanding young British choir, English Voices. Composed in roughly five weeks during 1748, Solomon was Handel's 14th biblical oratorio. The name of the librettist is lost, and this is not one of the composer's more narrative works, anyway. Act one hails King Solomon's wisdom and details his conjugal bliss; act two describes his famous judgement in the case of the two women contesting an infant's motherhood, and act three is devoted to his kingdom's prosperity, as witnessed by the visiting Queen of Sheba.
In her program notes, Ruth Smith did an exceptional job of describing why 18th-century British listeners would have noted numerous specific parallels between the scenes described in the oratorio and their own contemporary milieu -- for better and for worse -- not to mention a slight frisson of discontent in the discrepancies between the two, as well as the less savory aspects of Solomon's later life omitted in the Handel work. This was a fine piece of writing; I'd love to provide a link to the notes online, but apparently Lincoln Center's website doesn't allow access to past events.
That Jacobs is a superb conductor of Handel is probably common knowledge by now, but again and again I was struck by the sheer energy of his leadership and the rightness of his choices with regard to tempo and balance. It might seem absurd to say so, but Jacobs actually elicited climaxes so strong and sturdy that I was reminded of Wagner, of all things. The OAE, close to celebrating its 20th anniversary, played with gutsy abandon, but didn't stint on refinement. And while the English Voices didn't sound altogether coordinated in the cruelly sibilant opening chorus, "Your harps and cymbals sound," the group's performance quickly tightened into a glorious mass of fine diction, snappy counterpoint and impressive weight at climaxes, particularly in the second and third acts.
Handel wrote the title role for a mezzo, but Jacobs opted for a countertenor: the young Australian singer David Hansen, who sang with a seemingly easy control similar to that of Andreas Scholl, even if Hansen doesn't quite command that remarkable singer's vocal heft and variety of timbre as yet. (Hansen will be singing the role of Trinculo in Thomas Ades's The Tempest at Santa Fe Opera this summer, so I'm certainly hoping to catch him again.) Singing the roles of Solomon's Queen and First Harlot was Swedish soprano Malin Christensson, a last-minute replacement for Lisa Milne. In the former role, she sang with beautiful tone but didn't really seem to lift the character off the page; she was far better as the mother willing to sacrifice her child to another woman, if only to save the infant's life. Her rival was another Swedish soprano, Marie Arnet, whose line, "False is all her melting tale" was delivered with evident venom; Arnet's rolled eyes and the trace of a cruel smile practically transformed the second act into a miniature opera. Arnet returned in the third act as a regal Queen of Sheba. (That Christensson and Arnet wore different dresses for each of their two roles was a subtle but appreciated bit of stage business.)
Tenor Jeremy Ovenden and baritone Henry Waddington, both of whom were featured in Jacobs's exciting recording of Handel's Saul issued last year on Harmonia Mundi, completed the cast of principals this afternoon. Of the two, Ovenden had the more thankless job: As the priest Zadok, he frequently had to produce rushing torrents of syllables at breakneck speed. While his tone was understandably somewhat constricted, he managed Handel's barrage altogether handsomely. Overden's proclamations as the Levite were suitably stentorian.
Unless I spaced out for a long moment, one of Solomon's first act arias, "Haste, haste to the cedar grove," was omitted despite its text appearing in the libretto provided. That aside, the oratorio was presented at [EDIT: near -- see the next post for clarification] full length, affording the singers ample opportunity for embellishment during the da capo repeats. All told, Solomon clocked in at just a tad under three hours. It could have gone on much longer as far as I was concerned, and the audience response suggested that I was far from alone in this.
Later in the evening, I caught the first set of the Billy Hart Quartet's closing night at the Village Vanguard. An undersung drummer of the generation that produced Tony Williams and Jack De Johnette, Hart has come into his own as a bandleader rather later than those peers. An impressively diverse CV includes important engagements with Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery and Shirley Horn, but Hart is probably best remembered as the drummer for the protean fusion group Herbie Hancock assembled upon his graduation from Miles Davis's band -- a band that finally claimed the renown it deserved well after its players had dispersed.
Hart is a drummer whose style can't be easily pigeonholed. To a large extent he carries on the ever-forward leaning urges of Williams, and did as much as any drummer to shape the nascent fusion vocabulary. But Hart is equally beholden to the legacies of Elvin Jones (in his volcanic temperament) and Ed Blackwell (in his thorough melodicism), not to mention the still-active Roy Haynes, whose multi-limbed coordination paved the way for Hart by bridging the gap between bop essentials and the emerging avant-garde of the late 1950s.
From his earliest efforts as bandleader, Hart has demonstrated a proclivity for wedding disparate players. His first album as leader, Enchance (A&M Horizon, 1977), included such mavericks as Dewey Redman, Oliver Lake and Don Pullen. Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland appeared alongside Bill Frisell and Steve Coleman on Hart recordings during the '80s; a '90s band featured Mark Feldman and Dave Fiuczynski. Accordingly, Hart's current quartet unites saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Ben Street.
"Mellow B," the Iverson composition that opened the set, found Hart's turbulent bashes, splashes and rumbles grounded by Street's slow, patient bass line. Iverson's solo climaxed in circular torrents, while Turner blew dry, disjunct lines that broke the melody apart into Mondrian-like blocks. John Coltrane's "Moment's Notice" was slyly teased, then thoroughly dissected before its theme was stated outright; Turner seemed to sneak up on every note he played. Iverson's hushed opening soliloquy in "Charvez" sounded as if it was being played at some gaping distance. Turner's solo revealed his most gorgeous tone; behind him, Street tossed off five-beat handfuls of 16th notes against Hart's slightly outside-the-pocket sway.
Alternating figures at the top and bottom of his instrument, Street opened "Charvez" like two songbirds conversing from tree to tree. Turner once again unspooled a strand of consumate beauty; Iverson's whispered solo was punctuated by Hart's rude smacks on a low tom-tom. The pianist introduced a thoroughly fragmented "Body and Soul" that seemed to reference both Monk ballads and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" -- the latter quote I almost certainly invented. Over skeletal bass and a whisper of brushes, Iverson's left hand chased right at a canonical distance. A bright, upbeat rendition of Wayne Shorter's "This Is for Albert" ended in a splashy solo by the leader, punctuated by a persistent three-note tattoo that evolved into a take on Max Roach's signature piece, "The Drum Also Waltzes." Paradoxically, in this performance of another drummer's solo, Hart asserted his own personality; there could be no mistaking one for the other. The set ended with another Iverson composition, "Neon," in which the band seemed to frolic in duple and triple time simultaneously.
Since Hart is more a distinguished figure than a household name, tonight's capacity crowd came as a happy surprise. His performance fulfilled my high expectations, as did those of Iverson and Street. But I left the club wondering one thing: Has Mark Turner always been this good? I'd respected the records he issued between 1998 and 2001 on the Warner Bros. label -- all of them critically acclaimed -- but they hadn't moved me in the way his engrossing playing did tonight. On this evidence, it was hard to deny the notion that Turner neatly reconciles dry concerns of intellect with the more passionate demands of the heart, as well as parts further south. This left me thinking that I might have listened to his discs with the wrong ears; clearly, further research is compulsory. And in my book, that's always a good thing.
While I'm busy with that, let me commend you to the new website Iverson has set up for Hart. While there's little music available to download so far, Iverson's extensive interview with Hart -- of which two sections have been posted so far -- is mandatory reading for anyone interested in the evolution of modern jazz drumming.
(As for my prediction last Wedneday night that Made Out of Babies would form some part of this weekend's sonic intake, well, that didn't come to pass, sorry to say. Hopefully, my next chance to catch this scarily compelling Brooklyn-based grunt-metal band won't be too far off.)
Joseph Holbrooke Trio - The Moat Sessions (Tzadik)
Richard Wagner - Lohengrin - Elisabeth Grümmer, Christa Ludwig, Jess Thomas, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gottlob Frick, Vienna State Opera Choir, Vienna Philharmonic / Rudolph Kempe (EMI Classics)
Miles Davis - The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet 1965-1968 (Columbia/Legacy, disc one)
Herbie Hancock - Crossings (Warner Bros.)