Julianne Baird sings with Orchestra 2001

Posted: March 21, 2011

After spending several decades rarely venturing out of 18th-century music, Philadelphia's Baroque diva-in-residence Julianne Baird appeared with Orchestra 2001 in music written as recently as a dozen years ago. An artistic midlife crisis at work? Who cares when the change makes so much sense.

Even when the vocal writing and her singular voice didn't mesh during Saturday's fund-raiser at Trinity Center for Urban Life, Baird and 2001 music director James Freeman cleverly reimagined how the music could say what it was after. She also found some depths in her lower range that I never guessed were there.

The program's theme was backward glances by forward-looking composers. Italian composer Luciano Berio's best works often were collages, bits of music torn from the past. His 1964 Folk Songs (sung by Baird) were a more respectful example, with 11 songs, including "Black Is the Color (of My True Love's Hair)" and an Azerbaijan love song with spare accompaniments from a five-member chamber ensemble.

Amid Berio's amorphous harmonies and taste for hyperactive flute and independent-minded cello writing, Baird staked her claim on his piece with her well-focused sense of how the vocal line fits into the overall picture. In much folk poetry, the protagonist is a young maiden dealing with the eternal challenges of matrimony, and the lightness of her timbre is ideal for that. When the music did not allow such coincidence, her vividly inflected treatment of the language made the actual timbre of her voice a nonissue. The most pleasant shock was hearing Baird's voice coming out from behind the artifice of Baroque music. Suddenly, she was singing directly to you.

Baird's conviction in American composer Roberto Sierra's 1999 Sephardic Songs made you temporarily forget the darker Iberian voices one associates with these ancient verses that are so atmospherically enshrined by Sierra at his best. Why isn't this piece done all the time?

German composer Paul Hindemith inhabited the first half with two chamber concertos from his Kammermusik series modeled after Bach's Brandenburg Concertos with a lighthearted manner hailing from the 1920s Germany that also spawned Kurt Weill. Instrumentation is diverse. Kammermusik No. 3 is fronted by a cellist (Lori Barnet) and No. 2 by a pianist (Marcantonio Barone). Both left you longing for melody. The music does take you to interesting places thanks to its construction and counterpoint, particularly when there is a charismatic soloist such as Barone. Performances were well-wrought (Freeman conducted No. 3, assistant conductor Mark Loria had No. 2), if one rehearsal away from being sparkling.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

 

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