Yesterday afternoon, at Holy Trinity Church, the Juilliard415 gave their final noontime recital of the season with a program that focused on the music of the English Baroque. The featured composers were John Blow, William Boyce, Antonio Vivaldi and George Onslow.
The program opened with a Suite in G minor from Blow's Venus and Adonis (1683). I had never heard of the larger work - nor of the composer himself, for that matter - but it turns out to have been a milestone in the history of English music. As described in the Encyclopedia Britannica:
"His [Blow's] Venus and Adonis, written between 1680 and 1685 for performance at court and called by him A Masque for the Entertainment of the King, was important in the development of English opera. It is the first surviving dramatic work with English text in which the whole text is set to music without either spoken dialogue or extraneous musical entertainment."
What's remarkable is not only that this was the only such piece Blow composed - he was chorister at the Chapel Royal and the great bulk of his output was comprised of sacred and secular ceremonial music - but even more that his librettist, Anne Finch, was an early feminist. (Apparently, Blow had a preference for strong willed women. According to Wikipedia, he later collaborated with the British spy Aphra Behn, she whom Virginia Woolf so admired, on a play entitled The Lucky Chance.) The Suite in G minor consists of a series of dances - "Entry: A Dance by a Huntsman," "The Graces' Dance" and "Gavatt" - prefaced by an overture and followed by a "ground." It was certainly lively to hear. The performers were Nayeon Kim and Isabelle Seula Lee, violins; Nethanel Pollack, viola; Julia Nilsen-Savage, cello; and Gabriel Benton, harpsichord.
The next work was Boyce's Sonata in A minor from Sonatas for Two Violins and a Bass (1747) as performed by Caroline Ross and Fiona Last, oboes; Kamila Marcinkowska-Prasad, bassoon; Adam Cockerham, theorbo; and Evan Kory, harpsichord. Boyce's trio sonatas were the only chamber works published during his lifetime (by the firm of John Walsh whose founder had gained renown earlier in the century as the publisher Handel's music) and were quite successful. A website dedicated to Eighteenth Century English Music states:
"According to the musical historian Charles Burney (1726-1814) Boyce’s Trio Sonatas 'were longer and more generally purchased, performed and admired, than any productions of the kind in this kingdom, except those of Corelli' and were 'in constant use, as chamber music in private concerts' and were 'in our theatres…..public gardens, as favourite pieces, during many years'."
Like Beethoven, Boyce suffered from increasing deafness as he grew older. Due to this misfortune, he was forced to relinquish his position as organist at Chapel Royal and afterwards retired to the country where he edited an anthology of church music that had been begun by his teacher Maurice Greene.
The Boyce piece was followed by Vivaldi's Chamber Concerto in G minor for Flute, Oboe, Violin, Bassoon and Continuo, RV 107 (n.d.) from an autograph manuscript I-Tn, Giordano 31, Bl. 314-323. I'm not really sure how Vivaldi ended up on a program of English music, but his work is so superb that he's always welcome on any pretext. This piece stood out in its liveliness and dexterity from those that had preceded it and made them seem almost drab in comparison. This concerto is unusual in the Baroque chamber repertoire in that it gives equal emphasis to all the principal instruments rather than just focusing on one as soloist. This gives the final presto movement a somewhat frenzied quality as the instruments pass short solo fragments back and forth at dizzying speed. The work was expertly performed by Joseph Monticello, flute; David Dickey, oboe; Ambra Casonato, violin; Neil Chen, bassoon; and Robert Warner, harpsichord.
The program closed with the first movement of Onslow's Sting Quintet No. 15 in C minor, Op. 38, titled De la balle ("The Bullet") (1829). Onslow was another composer a bit out of place on this program since the dates of his career place him firmly in the Romantic period rather than the Baroque. He was, in fact, an admirer of the music of Berlioz. Also, having been born in France and having lived there his entire life, Onslow was English only by descent. In any event, the present quintet has a fascinating backstory. After having completed the first movement, that played here, Onslow was struck by a bullet while hunting with friends and was left partially deaf as a result. The later movements thus take on a programmatic function (one senses the influence of Berlioz here) as they describe successively Onslow's pain, fever and recovery. The musicians who performed this piece were Jeffrey Girton and Augusta McKay Lodge, violins; Toma Iliev, viola; Alexander Nicholls, cello; and Peter Ferretti, double bass. One only wishes they had played the quintet in its entirety.