If Antonio Salieri is ever to have another day in the sun, it may be thanks to irresistible Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, currently following up on her recent all-Salieri CD with a U.S. concert tour.
Salieri, maligned by the popular play and film Amadeus as the mortal, insanely jealous enemy of Mozart, may not be top-drawer - most of his harmonic progressions are just too safe and predictable, many of his melodies too bland. But he was a genuine talent nonetheless.
His music clearly deserves the occasional revival, and you couldn't get more vivid proponents than the brilliant Bartoli and her equally arresting backup band, England's Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The Decca CD they made together, which included nearly a dozen premiere recordings of arias from Salieri operas, is an instant classic, both for the repertoire itself and the sensational commitment of the performers.
Even more satisfying is the live version of this Salieri feast, presented at the Kennedy Center Sunday afternoon by the Washington Performing Arts Society. Not only did we get to hear lots of arias, but the orchestra had the stage to itself for several pieces that helped fill in the composer's portrait.
Bartoli's uncommon agility, unending variety of tone coloring and million-watt personality have earned her devoted fans - and detractors, who fault certain technical means of her vocal production, or the range of facial expressions that accompany her singing. On Sunday, in the aria Ah sia gia, when she reached the word terribile, she looked like she had just smelled a 5-day-old fish.
For me, all reservations melt away the second Bartoli grabs hold of a curvy tune and starts working her magic on it. Her confident, meaningful, spectacular vocalism lighted up the hall, from the coloratura fireworks of Vi sono sposa e amante to the drained emotion of an extended scene from Armida.
Playing without conductor, the orchestra - one of the world's most accomplished period-instrument groups - backed the singer with remarkable polish and feeling. It served up delightfully spirited performances of some Salieri overtures and brought down the house with an infectious romp through his brilliantly orchestrated Variations on La Folia di Spagna, a work that easily explained why the composer was once on top of the musical world.
If Saturday night's sizable turnout at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills is any indication, folks are finally catching on to how much substance and enjoyment can be found when the Concert Artists of Baltimore perform there.
The hall's superior acoustics make an ideal match for the spirit and commitment of this chamber orchestra and professional chorus. Artistic director Edward Polochick invariably comes up with interesting programs and, as at this concert, conducts them with an unusually inspiring energy.
To start, there was a riveting account of the Chamber Symphony for string orchestra by Shostakovich, which incorporates all the fear, contempt and bitterness of a life strained by war and totalitarianism. Polochick struck deep into the heart of the score, nowhere more chillingly than in the passage when vicious chords break out like dreaded knocks at the door in the still of night. The slow, final fadeout, beautifully accomplished by the players, expressed an ache at once personal and universal.
Moving from pain to comfort, Polochick next offered a rare performance of the a cappella Mass for double chorus by Swiss composer Frank Martin. It's a fascinating piece that reaches backward toward chant, yet sits comfortably and clearly in the early 20th century. Aside from a little intonation slippage in the Agnus Dei, the choristers did exceptional work under Polochick's guidance, particularly in the haunting Et incarnatus est and Crucifixus passages of the Credo.
To close, there was another inexplicably under-performed piece, the Clarinet Concerto by Englishman Gerald Finzi. David Drosinos, principal clarinetist and founding member of Concert Artists, played the idyllic score with technical security, tonal warmth and exceptionally eloquent phrasing. Conductor and ensemble backed the soloist with admirable sensitivity. The performance made me hope that Polochick will unearth some more Finzi next season - how about the exquisite Eclogue for piano and strings?