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April 25, 2012

Recovering my 'lost weekend' (Part 1): Handel Choir's 'Semele'

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I had something of a 'lost weekend' (not the Ray Milland variety, honest), which meant that a couple of days unexpectedly got away from me, days that would have been spent writing about a couple of performances (and attending at least one more last Sunday).

I know it's a little late now -- OK, very late -- but, for what it's worth, I thought I would offer some of what I was planning to say about last weekend's musical activity, starting with the Handel Choir of Baltimore's standing-room-only concert Saturday night at the Church of the Redeemer.

The ensemble honored its namesake by digging into "Semele," one of the composer's most beautiful creations, a combination opera/oratorio based on Greek mythology. The score includes the exquisite tenor aria "Where'er you walk," which is reason enough to rank "Semele" high.

As I have said repeatedly, the Handel Choir has made terrific progress over the years with artistic director Melinda O'Neal. That progress was vividly driven home on this occasion. O'Neal kept things moving, in keeping with historical performance practice, but she let the music breathe.

The ensemble produced a ripe, smoothly balanced sound, with much firmer efforts from the men than I recall previously. An iffy entrance in "Endless pleasure" aside, there was admirable discipline in the singing, as well as expressive fire. Contrapuntal passages were nimbly executed, even at a bracing clip.

The roster of guest artists was headed by soprano Clara Rottsolk, who soared in the title role. She used her bright, clear tone with great finesse, from the pianissimo sculpting of "O sleep, why dost thou leave me" to the bravura flourishes in "Myself I shall adore."

Rottsolk and plush-voiced mezzo Kristen Dubenion-Smith, as Ino, blended gorgeously in "Prepare then, ye immortal choir."

Aaron Sheehan, an unfailingly stylish tenor, proved a major asset, too, as Jupiter. His elegant embellishments in "Where'er you walk" were beautifully judged.

Other particularly notable solo contributions to the performance came from contralto Monica Reinagel and countertenor Douglas Dodson.

The Handel Period Instrument Orchestra, supplemented by members of Peabody's Baltimore Baroque Band, proved to be a star of the performance in its own right. I especially admired how the fearless strings didn't just take fast passages with panache, but with wonderful color.

All in all, this performance of "Semele" represents an impressive achievement for the Handel Choir, which, I hope, will be emboldened to explore more of what the group's namesake created besides "Messiah."

I still have "Where'er you walk" wandering through my head, so I'll finish this post by sharing a lovely version with you, sung by John Aler, followed by a forgivable act of tenor-usurpation -- the incomparable John McCormack in a superb account of the soprano aria "O sleep why dost thou leave me":

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:07 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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