Every once in a while we encounter a group of musicians who present a concert so polished and so masterful that it grabs us by the throat and holds us spellbound for the better part of two hours. Just such a concert we heard yesterday afternoon at Carmel’s Sunset Center as violinists Daniel Hope and Simon Papanas, cellist Nicola Mosca, lutist Emanuele Forni, harpsichordist Naoki Kitaya, and percussionist Michael Metzler, put together a rich “Baroque Journey” that was as entertaining as it was profound.
I say “profound” because the program consisted not of gigantic well-known masterpieces like “The Art of the Fugue” or The Goldberg Variations,” but rather it featured smaller works by obscure composers that most of us were hearing for the first time. However, each one of these smaller works was performed with such “Joy of Life” and masterful conviction that each performance seemed “inevitable.” It just didn’t seem possible that any of these works could be performed any better. The end result was that we came away convinced that each of the pieces we heard had developed a masterpiece status of its own.
We knew we were in for something special in the way the concert opened. Normally, all six musicians would have shuffled out together, accepted applause, arranged the music on the stands and begun to perform. Not so with “Daniel Hope and Friends.” During the pregnant silence before the musicians emerged, we became aware of mysterious intermittent drumbeats from offstage, and then observed percussionist Michael Metzler coming out while continuing his mysterious sequence of drumbeats. After a few moments, Metzler was followed by each of the other musicians entering the stage playing their instruments. It was like Haydn’s “Farewell Symphony” in reverse. We didn’t realize it at first, but we were already hearing the beginning work on the program Ricerata segunda by Diego Ottiz, albeit initially in motion. At the end of the concert it was again like Haydn’s “Farewell Symphony,” but this time in forward motion with each musician quietly getting up and walking slowly off the stage into the wings.
Apart from the effective drama and stagecraft, we heard a few familiar works such as the Sarabande HWV 437 by Händel, the Sonata for Two Violins by Vivaldi on the “La Folia” theme, and a wickedly clever rendition of “Greensleeves.” We heard Daniel Hope at his best with magnificent warm expressive tone and stylish mastery in La suave melodia by Andrea Falconieri.
In Imitazione della campagne by Johann Paul von Westhoff and in Diverse bizarre sopra la Veccia by Matteis, we heard violinists Hope and Papanas playing at the speed of light and and impressing us with their precise arpeggiated up and down chordal patterns that surely foreshadowed the same technique observed 200 years later at the end of the first movement cadenza in Mendelssohn’s violin concerto just before the orchestra reprises the opening theme.
An especially attractive work was the Passacaglia à 3 by Andrea Falconieri with a beguiling solo for lute played by Emanuele Forni — he also played Baroque guitar elsewhere on the program. We suddenly became aware that we don’t hear enough music for lute.
One of the showstoppers on the program was Le guerra cosi nominata by Westhoff, which Hope, speaking from the stage, reminded us that war and drums are often intertwined, and not surprisingly we had an opportunity to hear fabulous drum playing by Michael Metzler. Hope told us that Metzler is a magician when it comes to finding way to make music with whatever is at hand — you could give him a pair of salt and pepper shakers, and he could use them to make an impressive piece of music. We saw Metzler take up a tambourin — you know, the kind of toy used in kindergarten classrooms — and demonstrate a mind-boggling bag of tricks and techniques possible with such a basic instrument.
So the afternoon went — we were constantly astonished at the complete mastery of these fine musicians. If you hear a pianist performing Rachmaninoff’s third Piano Concerto, you will always be aware of the struggle to control such a work that every pianist suffers. However, Daniel Hope & Friends managed to convince us that their music making was totally effortless, because everything they did looked easy. Of course we know they put in thousands of hours to achieve such mastery, but making it look easy is the ultimate accomplishment.
Thunderous acclaim and a standing ovation were rewarded with a few encores. In announcing the last encore, Hope told us that he had searched high and low for a work by J. S Bach, so obscure none of us would recognize it. He tricked us. After five seconds a chuckle went through the audience — it was Bach’s totally familiar “Air on a G String.”