Bach Collegium San Diego Celebrates the English Baroque with a Concert of Purcell and Blow

To celebrate the 20th season of the Bach Collegium San Diego, Artistic Director Ruben Valenzuela opened the company’s season with a concert of music by John Blow and Henry Purcell on Saturday at All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Point Loma. Noting the concert’s subtitle, “two of England’s most influential composers of the 17th century,” I am certain I was not the only member of the audience who thought, “Wait—there are others?”

In any case, Valenzuela showed his robust sense of humor by calling the concert “Blow by Blow” and featured on the program cover a period drawing of two boxers—exchanging blows!

His program centered on two major works, an instrumental suite from Purcell’s semi-opera The Fairy Queen and John Blow’s masque Venus and Adonis in concert format, delivered in impeccable period style under Valenzuela’s adroit direction of a chorus of eight vocal soloists and a period instrumental ensemble of 15 players.

While Italian opera was the rage in the 17th century and spread throughout Europe, it did not take root in England, where English-language adaptations of the genre—the masque and semi-opera—were cultivated instead of Italian opera. The spirit that spawned Brexit was already a cultural factor in England four centuries ago.

Blow’s 1683 Venus and Adonis recounts the tragic end of the love affair between those mythological titans Venus and Adonis when the latter is killed by a wild boar in a hunting expedition. Most scholars see Blow’s masque as the template for Purcell’s 1689 opera Dido and Aeneas, although history has been much kinder to Purcell’s opera, which has never fallen from the repertory. Blow’s masque barely survives as a footnote in music history tomes, and I have never encountered a live performance of Blow’s masque in decades of reviewing.

Valenzuela struck gold casting Sherezade Panthaki as Venus. The singer’s fresh, clear soprano with only a hint of vibrato bloomed gloriously in her upper register, and when called on to execute flashy fioritura, she triumphed. John Buffet’s vocally persuasive Adonis benefited from both the color of his vibrant baritone and his crisp declamation of the text. Unlike too many baritones, he possesses an unusually strong, colorful bass register, which when called upon added to his masculine prowess.
Mezzo-soprano Kristen Dubenion-Smith’s Cupid, however, did not carry well in the room, and her treatment of the composer’s arioso lines was monochromatic. In several smaller roles, countertenor Dan Cromeenes’ delicate voice did not always hold its own above the string section, although when I could hear him, I appreciated his supple phrasing.

The full chorus provided a rich, muscular ensemble, and in their final chorus revealed the compelling depth of this beautifully constructed elegy. Overall, Blow’s arias and dialogues lacked the panache of, say, a mid-century Francesco Cavilli opera, but his instrumental dance interludes displayed arresting charm.

The Purcell Suite from The Fairy Queen revealed an admirable collection of dances, including a Hornpipe, a lusty triple meter dance that is unique to the British Isles. Purcell provided his more festive dances with spirited parts for a pair of oboes that invigorated and decorated these movements, and oboists Kathryn Montoya and Stephen Hammer executed these lines with apt fervor and skill. A Purcell “Fantasia upon one Note” for five strings, ably led by Concertmaster Andrew McIntosh offered an exercise of finely wrought contrapuntal puzzle that climaxed in a spirited fughetta.

Blow’s rarely performed Ode for New Year’s Day 1688 Ye Sons of Phoebus offered some musical rewards with its engaging duets and trios, but its opaque, cumbersome text is probably the reason it has remained on the shelf since the 17th century.

The concert “Blow by Blow” was presented by the Bach Collegium of San Diego on October 21 & 22, 2022. The October 22 performance at All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Point Loma, CA, was attend for this review.

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