Élan Ensemble’s outdoor concert, “Arias for the Autumnal Equinox,” was a delightful celebration of 17th- and 18th-century music, performed in the marvelously picturesque garden of the historic Hammond-Harwood House in downtown Annapolis. Soprano Elissa Edwards, artist-in-residence at the Hammond-Harwood House, and harpsichordist Paula Maust delivered 11 songs by four composers, the majority by Purcell and Handel. The accompanying program contaied useful mini biographies of each composer and even printed lyrics to each work, including translations to the Italian. It was a wonderful way to celebrate the beginning of autumn, made all the sweeter by being one of the first live, in-person performances in Annapolis since the pandemic.
Elissa Edwards, despite having to compete with passing planes, helicopters, and even a lawnmower, has a powerful enough voice so that all audience members seated throughout the garden could clearly hear each word to every song. She gives every piece an emotional pull, starting with Purcell’s “Music for a While,” with its almost seductive hope that music will “all your cares beguile,” to the melancholy in “The Fatal Hour,” which mourns the need “when fate calls you from this place,” for “the thought does stab me to the heart.” She gives a celebration of being alone to “O Solitude,” which feels hauntingly moving, perhaps because we’ve been forced to spend so much time by ourselves the last six months. “O solitude, O how I solitude adore” reminds us of the power and joy that can come from being on our own.
Edwards trills expertly in “Mi palpita il chor,” giving it great emotional power. Her timing is perfect, pausing briefly between each recitative and aria, allowing Murst to fill the space with the harpsichord’s music. She also has a keen sense of humor, dramatically yawning before launching “O Sleep Why Dost Thou Leave Me,” which made the audience laugh terrifically. She fills each repeated line in “Solo per voi” with a different intonation, making the audience feel a slightly different emotion each time. She lent a bittersweet tenderness to the evening’s final song “Where’er You Walk,” especially the last lines, “And all things flourish/Where’er you turn your eyes.” There was some unintended comedy before the last stanza, as the audience began to applaud, but Edwards and Murst handled it without missing a beat.
Paula Maust gets a beautiful sound out of this harpsichord, which, Edwards explains, is a slightly smaller, more portable version than the usual instrument. Two of the evening’s pieces are instrumentals, giving Maust ample opportunity to display her skill. She imbues the first, Bernardo Pasquini’s “Partita sophra la Aria della Folia da Espagna,” with a rhythmic playfulness and an easy, flowing style. The second, “Suite in A Minor,” by Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, the only 18th-century female composer “able to publish her music under her own name,” has a prelude followed by three movements, each with its own slightly different character. Maust allows the audience to hear the different flavors of each movement, especially the drama in the final one, “Chaconne.” Maust combines great power with masterful subtlety.
Élan Ensemble chased away the outside world’s cares with beautiful music from another era. And feeling the energy created by musicians performing in front of a live audience, all carefully spread out and wearing masks, was absolutely thrilling. It gave the concert a power that filled the garden with delightful music.
Running Time: Approximately one hour, with no intermission.
Élan Ensemble performed “Arias for the Autumnal Equinox” on Thursday, September 24, 2020, at the Hammond-Harwood House, 19 Maryland Avenue, in Annapolis, MD. For information about future performances, visit their website.