(This review is by Luke Quinton, American-Statesman freelance arts critic.)
When the warring parties have been dead for a few hundred years, the stakes are lowered, but that didn’t mean the performers for La Follia’s Bach Vs. Handel “Smackdown” this weekend were taking the competition frivolously.
There was a moment in this Saturday night’s concert when La Follia’s director Keith Womer knew he was going to lose. He was explaining to the crowd that for the solo keyboard section, he’d given each composer a piece on his favorite instrument: Womer would play the homely harpsichord for Handel, which left Chris Keenan playing Bach’s famous “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” on the room-filling organ.
“What was I thinking!” Womer wondered aloud.
These little asides, the moments of theatrics engaged the audience in a concert that asked for their participation and attention all night long. Is it gimmicky? Sure. Yet a gimmick is only a gimmick if that’s all you come away with at the end of the night. Instead, La Follia’s smackdown, with the gregarious Womer as Master of Ceremonies; his white-wigged assistant announcing each round with a boxing-style placard and a bit of schtick; and pictures of both composers handed out to the audience so they could vote for their favorites, were proof of a carefully considered spectacle. And the lineup of musicians was serious enough to actually execute the idea.
Bach and Handel never met in person, despite being born in the same year and even sharing the same medical doctor. So there’s some satisfaction in pitting one against the other in rounds that test each composer’s strengths in different configurations and ensemble arrangements.
We heard Bach’s solo cello suite (number 1), poised against Handel’s “Violin Sonata in D” (no contest there for Mr. Bach) and then Handel’s melodic “Water Music Suite 2” pitted against organ music again, with Bach’s raucous “Cantata 29” backed by La Follia’s baroque strings and horns.
Most surprising was the unexpected power of each composer’s vocal music. Not many in the crowd would have pleaded deep familiarity with Handel’s “Ombra mai fu” from the composer’s opera “Serse,” which competed against Bach’s overplayed “Air on the G string,” in the “mellow” music category.
Here, as later in the program, the rich voice and presence of countertenor Nick Zammit had the audience practically swooning. Zammit is best remembered locally for his performance in Austin Opera’s contemporary opera “Flight.” And perhaps it’s overvaluing the market for Austin countertenors, but the fact that Zammit, whose day job finds him working as personal chef, lists no upcoming musical gigs, seems to be a loss verging on criminal.
Zammit had an brilliant sparring partner in the ever-charming chanteuse Meredith Ruduski. There were only a few musical letdowns, some out of tune horns and slightly shabby string playing.
So what do we learn from this exercise? Well, these matters are hard to decide. Do you like Handel’s piece better, but not this particular version? Is that worth casting a contrarian vote for Bach? Yes, it was a night of grave decisions.
With Bach in the lead, the piece de resistance appeared: singers from Chorus Austin performing Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” who then followed with Handel’s all-but-unbeatable Hallelujah Chorus.
The score after all this wrangling?