Dutch keyboardist and conductor Ton Koopman this weekend completed his third and final season as artist-in-residence with The Cleveland Orchestra, leading an all-Handel program that also featured the Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus. It was a musically satisfying program that showed the versatility of both orchestra and chorus.

Ton Koopman
Ton Koopman

Handel received patronage of three successive English monarchs, and this concert featured works resulting from that benificence. Handel’s Water Music originally served as background music for a 1717 summer aquatic entertainment on the Thames hosted by King George I. The definitive original order of the various short movements is not known, but they have come to us in series of three suites, the first of which, in F major, was performed in this concert. Koopman has managed to turn The Cleveland Orchestra, modern musicians playing modern instruments, into an excellent facsimile of a historically-informed Baroque orchestra. String vibrato is mostly absent, but used for the purposes of expressivity, with dissonances and their resolution highlighted. Oboists Frank Rosenwein and Mary Lynch adorned their parts with appropriately lavish ornamentation. Horn players Richard King and Jesse McCormick were brilliant in the extensive parts Handel wrote for them. Koopman himself conducted from the harpsichord, which he played vigorously. (One could imagine the harpsichord technician going pale as he heard Koopman percussively hitting the bottom of the keys, a sound that was very audible even in the balcony. Unlike the piano, hitting the keys harder has no effect on the sound of the plucked harpsichord strings. Since Ton Koopman is a renowned harpsichordist, it is not clear why he was playing this instrument with such force, except perhaps in an abundance of enthusiasm.) Koopman’s enthusiasm was contagious, and this was a joyful, celebratory performance.

The Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus joined the orchestra for Handel’s coronation anthem Zadok the Priest, one of four anthems written for the 1727 coronation ceremonies of King George II in Westminster Abbey and sung at the ceremonial crowning of the new monarch. The astonishing fortissimo entrance of the chorus after the serenely arpeggiated string introduction was calculated by the ever-theatrical Mr Handel to draw attention to the symbolic importance of the rite taking place, with its setting of words from I Kings. The chamber chorus was arrayed in curved rows on the same level and behind the orchestra. Like the orchestra, they adopted a pure, vibrato-less and penetrating sound for the performance. At times there were balance issues between orchestra and chorus, with the men of the chorus being overpowered by the female voices and orchestra. It was perhaps a quirk of the acoustics of Severance Hall and their arrangement on stage; but it seemed as though there was simply a need for more sound from the tenors and basses.

After intermission the assembled forces were joined by soloists countertenor Jay Carter, tenor Steven Soph, and bass-baritone Klaus Mertens, in the first-ever Cleveland Orchestra performance of Handel's Te Deum in D major (“Dettingen”). This setting of the Te Deum text in English was composed in 1743 to celebrate English victory led by George II over the French in the town of Dettingen. Handel composed the work quickly, borrowing from his own and other composers’ works. Some phrases of the Te Deum setting would also appear later in Handel’s own works. Despite his success in writing many such occasional works and some affecting moments, this is not top-drawer Handel. The Te Deum text is broken into short movements, mostly choral, with incidental solos. The bass has two arias, and there is a trio for the three soloists, but the tenor and countertenor are underutilized. Indeed, one felt cheated on behalf of the fine tenor Steven Soph for having to sit through the whole concert for four minutes of singing. His clear, focused voice was ideal for Handel’s music, and we would have liked to have heard more from him. The same was true for countertenor Jay Carter, who had some difficulty being heard above the orchestra. German bass-baritone Klaus Mertens, a regular in Ton Koopman’s recordings, showed a voice rich in its lower range, but also commanding in its high range. The chorus was well up to the polyphonic demands of the music. The a cappella passage at the words "We therefore praise thee” was strikingly beautiful.

These Handel performances were a tribute to the versatility of the chorus, who over the past four weeks have sung the vastly different Carmina Burana by Carl Orff; Joseph Haydn’s The Seasons; and now Handel. They have been well prepared for all three and carried them off stylishly as they finish their 60th anniversary season.

***11