The Arrival of the Well-Dressed Queens of Sheba
It’s been quite the week for early music in Sydney, with ACO’s new rendition of the Four Seasons and the impeccable Tafelmusik in town, but what a pleasure to have some heavenly music by George Frideric Handel, performed during the week of Handel’s birthday. We were treated to a very finely dressed Australian Brandenburg Orchestra with new dresses by Carla Zampatti and the boys in new swish suits but unmatching ties (and an accidental pair of white socks). Also two new voices, unheard in Australia beforehand: Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarães and Argentine soprano Mariana Flores. Handel’s The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba was a triumphant way to open the ABO’s 2015 concert season and the orchestra sounded as neat as they were dressed – and in greater numbers than the norm. I’m glad that Paul Dyer later explained why we needed two overly colourful angels on his splendid chamber organ – a reference to our thematic lady, St Cecilia, and her oft surrounding angels. I thought they may have been stuck there since a Christmas past and I was sure the double bassist was going to knock them over with a swish of her hair.
The oboes shone in the opening piece, beautifully soaring over well-balanced and controlled strings, which warmed us for a joyous night of heavenly Handel. Guimarães led the vocal proceedings with a stunning Look Down Harmonious Saint with ‘Musick’s force’ on display in his upper register and with his very emotive face. Then straight on, after a lengthy stage change, to the heroine of the night – Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day.
Heavenly choral harmonies
My only complaint of the night was that it would have been wonderful to hear one of my favourite Handel works straight through without stage changes and interval. All was not amiss as the arrival of a couple of lovely baroque trumpets (playing with loud clangour) and the choir – oh the choir! – what a wondrous and harmonious sound they can produce. Flores sang with chilling passion, particularly with the solo cello, but I think nerves over took as it was often hard to hear the English words being sung. Flores gathered her nerve for her beautiful duet with Melissa Farrow on ‘soft complaining flute’ (though we didn’t complain to hear that lovely flute after not hearing it all in the first half of the concert). Paul’s solo organ piece was stunning but the full choral finish took my breath away! I was surprised that this showstopper didn’t stop the show but Handel would have been happy with those heavenly harmonies.
As steals the morn
In what sounded like it should have been the first encore, the love duet Tra amplessi innocent finished the concert with our singers looking relieved to sing in Italian, and Flores loosened up and acted with flirtatious charm. The actual encore – As steals the morn – showed off the wondrous oboes and bassoon once more, matching the singers perfectly, with the sounds and lights fading into nothing.