Conductor, choirmaster and organist Stephen Cleobury visits Seattle for a “Baroque and Wine” concert of Bach and Pergolesi, plus an organ recital of Bach and Messiaen at Benaroya Hall.
British conductor, choirmaster and organist Stephen Cleobury needs no introduction to music lovers who have heard the great King’s College Choir, which he has conducted for more than 25 years. The Cambridge choir is particularly ubiquitous at Christmastime, when its many recordings permeate radio, television and even shopping malls.
In his current visit to Seattle, Cleobury is demonstrating his versatility as both conductor and choirmaster (March 4-5) as well as organist (March 7, in a full recital) at Benaroya Hall. The opening program on March 4, imaginatively chosen and beautifully performed, showed why Cleobury is so admired: minimum fuss, maximum artistic impact. Succinct gestures, attentive cuing and careful details lifted a very mixed bag of a “Baroque and Wine” program into something quite special, with a small ensemble of Seattle Symphony musicians and the excellent Northwest Boychoir.
The Boychoir, directed for the past 30 years by Joseph Crnko, has become a beloved Northwest fixture, partly through its many annual performances of the Christmas “Festival of Lessons and Carols” (an observance patterned on the tradition begun by Cleobury’s King’s College Choir). On Friday evening, the Boychoir responded to Cleobury’s baton with singing of exceptional clarity and balance, imposing unity, precise diction and a soaring lyricism that equaled the boys on the other side of the Atlantic.
Guest conductor Stephen Cleobury at Seattle Symphony
“Baroque and Wine” concert with the Northwest Boychoir Friday evening; Cleobury also plays a recital at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $20-$76 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
The “Baroque and Wine” program was officially titled “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3,” after its most famous segment, the third of Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos. This work was given a spirited and highly entertaining performance by an 11-member ensemble of Seattle Symphony players, and got the biggest applause of the evening. But the major piece on the program was the 41-minute “Stabat Mater” of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, who composed this choral/orchestral setting of a medieval text in 1736 (a couple of decades after the third Brandenburg).
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Full of intriguing, plangent harmonies, the “Stabat Mater” also offers some brilliant vocal solos and duets; these were taken by soprano Maria Mannisto and alto Danielle Sampson, both offering virtuoso technique and completely different tone quality, but nonetheless blending remarkably well. The Northwest Boychoir members warmly brought to life the choral sections expressing grief about the death of Christ, and the hope of eternity in paradise.
Cleobury’s March 7 organ recital will span a great divide: selections from Bach’s early “Clavier-Übung, Part 3,” and a 20th-century work of the young Olivier Messiaen, “La Nativité du Seigneur.” Fans of the “king of instruments” will not often have a chance to hear a recital like this one; in his notes, Cleobury has called portions of the Messiaen “almost deliriously ecstatic.”