Baroque and Wine: Seattle (Concert Review - The Seattle Times, 2015)

Distinguished English conductor Stephen Layton led Seattle Symphony players and vocalists in a stellar program of Vivaldi, Bach, Purcell and Handel on Friday.

The “sleeper” series at the Seattle Symphony just might be the “Baroque and Wine” presentations. Loaded with international talent, but not usually well attended, the baroque programming seems slightly underappreciated at Benaroya Hall – and that’s unfortunate, when there’s something this good on the stage.

Maybe one problem is the concert-and-wine format (with audience members lining up in the lobby for preconcert wine pours). Perhaps a liberal infusion of wine might have a somnolent effect on audiences, making the program a literal “sleeper.”

On Friday evening, the distinguished English conductor Stephen Layton led a smaller, period-sized orchestra of symphony musicians in a program of some top hits of the era — with two highly regarded vocal soloists and the Seattle Symphony Chorale. (One of those soloists, the seraphic soprano Amanda Forsythe, is featured this month on a brand-new Decca recording of Rossini’s opera “William Tell” alongside star tenor Juan Diego Florez.)

The Vivaldi “Gloria” ranks among the greatest hits of the era; Bach’s cantata, “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen,” is a famous showpiece for soprano and trumpet.

The two orchestra-only works on the program, Britten’s transcription of the Purcell “Chaconne” and Handel’s Concerto Grosso in F Major, flowered under the leadership of Layton, who drew warmly nuanced and almost vibrato-free performances from the strings. Beautifully shaped phrases and dynamics made the Handel a particular pleasure.

The expressive, easy quality of Forsythe’s incredibly nimble voice was most apparent in the virtuoso Bach cantata, where she was matched line for florid line by the orchestra’s solo trumpeter, David Gordon (in particularly good form). The program’s keyboardist, guest musician Joseph Adam, showed remarkable versatility as he moved back and forth between the harpsichord and the organ.

In the Vivaldi “Gloria,” the ensemble was joined by alto soloist Deanne Meek, whose rich tonal depth brought unusual beauty to the low-lying lines of her solos. She and Forsythe were excellent foils for each other, both displaying nimble virtuosity and very different (though complementary) tone quality.

The chorus, prepared by director Joseph Crnko, sang with spirit and obvious engagement. Layton conducted with particular attention to dramatic dynamics, and a stylistic assurance that left no doubt why his choruses — the renowned Polyphony and the Holst Singers – are considered among the world’s best.

By Melinda Bargreen
Special to The Seattle Times