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Four groups hold court for day

The Baltimore Sun

Nations do it (at least sometimes), so why not music groups? Get together, that is, and pool their resources for a good cause.

Thanks to underwriting from two anonymous donors, that's just what happened Sunday afternoon at the Peabody Institute, where the stage was shared by the Handel Choir of Baltimore, Pro Musica Rara and two Peabody organizations -- the Baltimore Baroque Band and Peabody Renaissance Ensemble.

Bringing all of these voices and period instruments together was a program of music associated with courts of Europe, from the regal team of Ferdinand and Isabella in the late 15th century to the days of England's Queen Anne about two centuries later. There was a nod to a lesser aristocrat, too, a certain Margrave of Brandenburg who famously ignored a bunch of concertos sent to him by a guy named Bach.

The opening selections from the Spanish Renaissance, including works by Juan del Encina, received stylish, atmospheric performances. Mark Cudek, founding director of the Peabody Renaissance Ensemble, has clearly imparted to his instrumentalists and singers not just a respect for historical detail, but a keen sense of the expressive possibilities in this repertoire.

There was an admirable sense of spontaneity from the players, especially Jacob Lodico, who had his recorder almost smoking with animated phrases in Cuando el Rey Nimrod. That item, with a warm solo by soprano Julia Steinbok, was one of two anonymous Sephardic pieces included. The other, Tu madre cuando te pario, featured rich vocalism from countertenor Peter Wen-Chih Lee.

Pro Musica Rara, which continues to be beautifully fine-tuned by director/cellist Allen Whear, took the spotlight for a buoyant, mostly polished account of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. John Thiessen negotiated the demanding trumpet part with a good deal of finesse. Stephen Bard (oboe), Gwyn Roberts (recorder) and Greg Mulligan (violin) brought confidence and style to their assignments as well, with fine support from the complement of strings and harpsichord.

Several members of Pro Musica Rara, the Peabody Renaissance Ensemble and Baltimore Baroque Band joined forces with some of the Handel Choir's regular period instrument players to create an excellent orchestra for the final work -- Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne.

This is one of the earliest works Handel wrote while in England, subtler and simpler than the oratorios that came to define him, but full of elegantly crafted melodic ideas. Handel Choir director Melinda O'Neal conducted the performance with a natural rhythmic flow and attentiveness to dynamic shading.

I don't remember hearing the choir sound so technically poised, so warm and balanced in tone. O'Neal's stewardship, which began only in 2004, has obviously been great for the organization, in its 72nd season.

Guest soloists for the Ode included soprano Jennifer Ellis, who phrased sweetly, and baritone David Arnold, whose rich sound filled the hall. Countertenor Christopher Dudley was certainly expressive, but his thin, pale voice left some of the music's potential on the page.

Downloadable hits

In cyber news, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's first downloadable live performance, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring conducted by Marin Alsop, has hit No. 1 on iTunes classical albums. The album became available this month and quickly landed among the Top 10 new releases.

Meanwhile, the Peabody Wind Ensemble's latest Naxos recording, Collage -- A Celebration of the Peabody Institute's 150th Anniversary, made it to No. 1 last week on the classical downloads chart of emusic.com. This interesting sampling of band repertoire, released at the end of February, was No. 4 for the month of March on that site, as of yesterday. Conducted by Harlan Parker, the disc includes a particularly vibrant performance of Schoenberg's Theme and Variations.


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