Tuesday night might have been the quietest yet the most dynamic concert at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park in several years. Harpsichordist and conductor Richard Egarr cautioned the crowd that they were in for a program of sometimes crazy, sometimes quirky material, and his comments were on the money, in the context of the very stylized world of 17th century British chamber music. Conducting animatedly from behind the keyboard, he led period instrument ensemble the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra through an often hushed, minutely detailed performance whose passion was in the subtleties.
Believe everything you’ve heard about soprano Rowan Pierce. The highlight of the night was a long, matter-of-fact but meticulously modulated lament from Purcell’s Fairy Queen suite, which she approached with a powerglide vibrato, completely in control yet emotionally bereft, over a poignantly waltzing, suddenly crescendoing backdrop.. She’s an old soul. There’s a lot to be said for classical singers being most empowered to channel emotion in their native tongue, and that may have had something to do with how vividly Pierce moved from a hint of goofy vaudeville in the second of three songs by the vastly underrated John Blow, to a very distant, very proto-circus rock menace, and then to the sorrowful interludes among the highlights of Purcell’s magnum opus which Egarr had cherrypicked for the second half of the program.
Christopher Gibbons, Egarr explained, had the misfortune to be the son of Orlando Gibbons, a name very familiar to any fan of British polyphony. Opening with the younger Gibbons’ Fantasy in A Minor immediately put the audience on notice that this would not be a sedate, predictable evening, the string orchestra nimbly negotiating the piece’s odd cadences and strikingly forward-looking harmonies.
The ensemble left no doubt that Matthew Locke’s Curtain Tune, from an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, was an opening-credits theme. Pierce’s seething restraint in Bess of Bedlam, the third of a trio of Purcell songs – better described as partitas – felt visceral, over Egarr’s spacious harpsichord, Adam Cockerham’s elegantly plucked theorbo and William Skeen’s looming, stark cello.
Among many other captivating moments, there was also a coy Purcell rondo ostensibly written for monkeys and an absolutely gorgeous guitar-and-harpsichord song, Lovely Selina, predating the Moody Blues and other pastorally-inclined balladeers of the rock era by two centuries.
For 114 years, from 1905 through 2019, the Naumburg Concerts in Central Park became one of the longest-running annual concert series in world history. Introducing this show, Christopher London, scion of the Naumburg philanthropic legacy, offered hope that 2021 will turn out to be the first of another 114. He didn’t assume any credit for the heroism of keeping classical music performance alive when it has never been more imperiled, but that credit is due.
Gallons of ink, virtual and otherwise, have been spilled over the greying of audiences for classical music, and the shortage of new generations to maintain it. But all that is a drop in the bucket in the face of the New Abnormal being schemed up by Facebook, and Microsoft, and the rest of the surveillance-industrial complex hell-bent on destroying the performing arts and moving all communication from the real world to a virtual one. That the Naumburg organization would seek simply to keep a universal human tradition alive is a braver move than founder Elkan Naumburg ever could have imagined. Although by all accounts, he would have been on the front lines fighting for it.
This year’s final Naumburg Bandshell concert is Aug 3 at 7:30 PM with the East Coast Chamber Orchestra and pianist Shai Wosner playing works by Mozart, Golijov and others. Show up early – an hour and a half isn’t too early – if you want a seat.