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01.28.09

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Phaedra

High Comedy: Soprano Christa Pfeiffer and alto Jonathan Salzedo (right) star in Saturday's performance of 'Clori, Tirsi e Fileno' by the Santa Cruz Chamber Players under the direction of Jerry Hui (bottom).

Baroque Masterpiece

The Santa Cruz Chamber Players celebrate three decades with an evening of early Handel.

By Scott MacClelland


George Frideric Handel--as he preferred to spell his name in England--is one of those prolific composers who seemed to hide many of their best jewels in places so arcane as to almost guarantee they'd disappear from view. If this suggests that Handel wasn't always hitting home runs, rest assured that, like Bach, the music is always at least good. Also like Bach, Handel often recycled his "best moments" into other guises and contexts. Yes, there is method to the madness.

When the Santa Cruz Chamber Players put on Handel's early Italian comic opera, Clori, Tirsi e Fileno, this Saturday in the opening concert of their 30th anniversary season, you might actually recognize some of the tunes. That's because Handel put fresh words to them and pretended they were brand new when they appeared in such of his better-known operas as Rodrigo, Rinaldo, Agrippina and Acis and Galatea.

British-born Bay Area harpsichordist Jonathan Salzedo, who serves the SCCP as this program's music director, first heard about the Handel work from a singer at the Berkeley Early Music Festival. For centuries, only a fragmentary manuscript, kept at the British Library, was known to exist. In 1960, however, one Rudolf Ewerhart discovered a complete score at Münster.

Although composed in 1707, when Handel was 22 and in the service of the Marchese Ruspoli, there is no record of a first performance then. Like its better known contemporary, Apollo e Dafne, it is catalogued as a chamber cantata, though the character of the music and its relation to the text plainly reveal a budding opera-composer, and opera was the only way a composer of that era could hope to make serious money.

But in any case, to turn a Baroque cantata into an opera requires nothing more than costumes and staging. Moreover, as Salzedo explains, the expanded instrumentation for this occasion "allows different combinations and creates new colors."

The 80-minute piece will be interrupted between scenes for savory and sweet treats--catered by Jozseph Schultz--and wine and coffee, to the accompaniment of Handel's popular organ concertos.

Described as "an authentic 18th-century sensory delight," the evening underscores the celebratory character running throughout this 30th anniversary season of the Chamber Players. (The production also pays the composer tribute in this 250th year after his death.)

Pastoral subjects were popular in 17th and early 18th century Italy: witness the art and music of the period. This work, subtitled "A faithful heart hopes in vain," tells the tale of a pretty shepherdess who loves two men, then loses both, sigh, to her fickleness. In this case, soprano Christa Pfeiffer is the ambivalent Clori, while soprano Kimberley Miller plays Tirsi and alto Jerry Hui gets to be Fileno. Any implicit sheep will be let out to pasture for the duration.

At Trinity College of Music, London, in the 1960s, when "the whole early music thing was just beginning," says Salzedo, "I felt pretty much on my own trying to figure it out."

In Europe, the leading lights then were Frans Brüggen, Gustav Leonhardt and Nicholas Harnoncourt. In Britain, Trevor Pinnock and Christopher Hogwood picked up the torch. But, explains Salzedo, their productions used modern instruments. Unsatisfied, he moved to the United States in 1981 and found a lot of demand in the Bay Area for his instrument and his zeal for Baroque performance-practice authenticity.

Salzedo has been affiliated off and on over the years with SCCP, and for their 25th season cobbled together a secular Bach "cantata" from some of that composer's sacred works, reversing the order of recycling that Bach used himself.


SANTA CRUZ CHAMBER PLAYERS celebrate their 30th anniversary with a performance Saturday, Jan. 31, at 8pm at First Congregational Church, 900 High St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25 general/$20 seniors and $15/students, available at www.scchamberplayers.org or 831.425.3149.


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