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Subject: David Daniels Meets Thomas Arne
From: Charles Schug <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Charles Schug <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sun, 15 Mar 1998 10:28:20 -0800
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        Spurred on by all the glowing reports on Opera-L last year about
David Daniels, I attended a Philharmonia Baroque performance on Saturday
night, featuring Thomas Arne's "The Masque of Alfred," as well as Handel's
"Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne" and the Symphony No. 3 in C of William
Boyce. Both the Arne and Handel pieces have a prominent part for
countertenor, and I was in no way mislead by the favorable notices: Daniels
is a marvelous singer. His breath control is phenomenal, allowing him to
spin out seemless legato and flowing passage work. His tone is also
remarkably sweet and beautiful--none of that reedy, hooty or forced sound
you sometimes hear from other countertenors. I was particularly struck by
how fine a musician he is. In this he reminds me of Luciano Pavarotti; to my
mind, that is what has always distinguished Pavarotti: careful attention to
dynamics, impeccable diction and elegant phrasing (as well as beauty of
tone). Daniels shares these traits as a singer. I did have some problem on
Saturday hearing him in some of the softer passages, which I attribute in
part to the miserable acoustics of the First Congregational Church in
Berkeley: the space seems to absorb the voice. I am sorry I didn't attend
the Friday performance at Herbst, where the acoustics are more amenable to
vocalists.

        Daniels may also have been suffering slightly from a cold; he had to
clear his throat loudly at one point and he coughed a couple of times after
finishing a selection. The tenor blew his nose a couple times as well, one
of the few times I have ever seen a soloist do that. One scheduled
soprano--Cyndia Sieden--was ill and Christine Brandes replaced her. The
conductor was Anthony Newman, a replacement for Nicholas McGegan, who is
also ill. Happily, none of this adversely affected the performance.

        The program was completely unfamiliar to me but I found each of the
pieces delightful. The Boyce Symphony is perky and charming. The Handel
piece was the first major work he set to a text in English, and it is
suitably stately and official sounding. Apparently, Queen Anne heard it and
enjoyed it enough to grant Handel a pension, but she died the following
year, so the pension was short-lived. The "Ode" is scored for countertenor,
soprano and bass. The singers were Daniels, Jennifer Smith and Leroy Kromm.
Smith has a pleasant voice but she sang very tentatively and cautiously, in
part perhaps because two singers were originally scheduled to share the
soprano parts and Smith ended up taking all of them. She sounded more
confident in the Arne piece in the second half of the program. Kromm was
servicable. The Philharmonia Chorale also had a prominent part in this
piece, and they acquitted themselves very nicely indeed. I don't think this
piece stands up to later and greater Handel, but it was very enjoyable
nonetheless.

        Only portions of "The Masque of Alfred" survive. It is a celebration
of King Alfred the Great and an exhortation to British patriotism ending
with "Rule, Britannia!" (obviously a great hit during Arne's lifetime, for
the plaque memorializing him in St. Paul's Church in London contains those
words--St. Paul's Church, not Cathedral, is that elegant structure next to
Covent Garden, designed I believe by Inigo Jones with Palladian restraint).
I gather there was spoken dialogue or recitatives in addition to interludes
and dance music, all of which were destroyed in a fire. The set songs
interspersed with the lost portions were published separately and therefore
have survived. Some of these songs, ranging from encomiums to the pastoral
life (Corin, a tenor part, and Emma, a soprano part) to inspirational pleas
(Alfred's pieces, sung by tenor, and Prince Edwards' selections,
countertenor), wifely devotion (Eltruda, sung by soprano) and exhortatory
commentary by a Spirit (soprano). The language is abstract and
"conventional" (by which I mean, following convention) for the most part.
The selections that particularly stood out were Alfred's "From the dawn of
early morning/To the shade of night returning,/ Still these guardian arms
shall press thee"), which was stirring and patriotic; Prince Edward's
rousing "Vengeance, o come inspire me!" (Daniels was superb here); and, of
course, "Rule, Britannia," for tenor, soprano and chorus. The tenor was
Jamie McDougall, who sang well; Christine Brandes sang the pastoral Emma and
the Spirit with beautiful tone and great animation; Jennifer Smith was
Eltruda, giving her finest performance in "O peace, thou fairest child of
heav'n."

        There was a wonderful bit of unexpected drama in the Arne piece,
when the concertmaster--Elizabeth Blumenstock--(loudly) broke a string in
the middle of a selection. Without a second's hesitation, the second
violinist handed her her own violin and took the damaged instrument. One of
the players seated directly behind her gave her a new string, and the second
violinist proceeded with amazing rapidity and skill to restring the violin.
At the end of the selection while the repair was still in progress, Anthony
Newman asked if they should pause, the second violinist shook her head, they
continued, and in the middle of the following selection, she traded
instruments with the concertmaster and both continued playing. During the
curtain call each of the singers was presented with a bouquet of flowers;
one of them was then promptly awarded to the concertmaster (I think it
should have gone to the second violinist myself). Daniels threw his to the
harpsichordist, who certainly had had a work out.

        Pace Janos, I did not find Arne boring at all. I don't think 18th
Century music is everyone's idea of exciting, because it, like the poetry,
is conventional (that is, following set patterns and expectations, in the
same sense that Alexander Pope's poetry is conventional but not to my mind
boring). One thing that struck me especially was how perfectly suited Arne's
music is to the English language. Often I find that English syntax does not
lend itself to musical setting as well as Italian or French or the setting
distorts the sentence structure (think of Handel's "All we like sheep have
gone astray," which when repeated comes out "we like sheep"). Arne's music,
on the other hand, finds a way of melding the musical phrase to English
syntax in a very natural manner. I understand there is a recent recording of
his opera "Artaxerxes" on the Hyperion label; I am ready to seek this out.

Cheers,

Charles Schug
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