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Two women and an orchestra: Emmanuelle Haïm and Sonya Yoncheva debut with the LA Phil in an all-Händel program

The beguiling soprano, Sonya Yoncheva, in one of the few poses she didn’t make at WDCH

On paper, Sunday afternoon’s concerts belonged to conductor Emmanuelle Haïm.  The reality was that and much more.  Ms. Haïm dominated the concert.  Many musicians had solo turns of one sort or another, and two — oboist Ariana Ghez and recorder player (or is it recordist?) Rotem Gilbert — even played front and center.  Yet when it was all said and done, soprano Sonya Yoncheva stole the show.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic first offered their 39-page press release about the 2011/2012 winter season in February of this year, and in it was precious little detail about this past weekend’s series.   Ms.  Haïm was listed under “Conductor and Artist Debuts,” but with no other information.  The separate chronological listing of concerts was only slightly less vague, listing the program as an all Händel affair featuring the well known Water Music (suites unspecified)  paired with the rarely performed Il delirio amoroso (Soprano TBD).  Eventually, Ms. Yoncheva’s name showed up on websites and press releases as the featured vocalist, the program details were clarified, and Ms. Haïm got some splashy coverage in the big local paper.

As it turns out, Southern California — indeed, most of the US — is late to the game.  Ms.  Haïm has been a sensation in Europe for many years, getting a 4-star concert review in The Guardian nine years ago.

Thankfully, she is every bit the Handelian others have been raving about.  Her on-stage demeanor is energetic, sometimes even spritely.  Whether conducting from the keyboard or standing in front of it, she coaxed out of the LA Phil a period-appropriate performance:  rhythms were taut, dynamics were nicely terraced, vibrato was minimized while appoggiaturas were abundant.   At the same time, she created a Baroque-ness without sacrificing the orchestra’s modern sound: strings were edgy without being astringent, woodwinds cut through them without being shrill.  And she did it all without the fussiness of some other period specialists who have previously stood in front of this orchestra (ahem, Roger Norrington, Marc Minkowski).  Her Händel seemed light-years removed from that of Herbert Blomstedt; his Music for the Royal Fireworks done a little over two years ago seems formal and stuffy in comparison.

Emmanuelle Haïm, sans harpsichord

The first half of the concert gave a number of individual musicians the opportunity to strut their stuff.  The Concerto Grosso in G, Op. 6 No. 1, opened up the festivities; Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour, Principal Second Violin Lyndon Taylor, and Assistant Principal Cello Ben Hong were featured prominently.   The two “other” Water Music suites followed.  For the Suite in G, Ms. Gilbert joined the orchestra as a guest artist.  Her recorders (she played two different instruments) would often get drowned out even in WDCH’s crystalline acoustic, but they provided a distinct texture against the other wind instruments and Ms. Gilbert played them with earnestness and panache.

The Suite in F is meant to feature horns, and Principal Horn Andrew Bain and Assistant Horn Ethan Bearman didn’t disappoint, especially with a resplendent opening to the Minuet; their efforts earned a couple of solo bows and a special trip by Ms. Haïm up the stairs behind the orchestra to give them hugs.  All that said, Ms. Ghez had her own extended solo in the suite’s overture, the beauty of her embellishments exceeded only by her consistently impressive tone .  In fact, the woodwind trio of Ms. Ghez and Marion Kuszyk on oboe and Whitney Crockett on bassoon were magnificent throughout, shining the most in the final “Bourree” and “Hornpipe;” I especially loved how Mr. Crockett’s expressive playing came through without dominating his colleagues.

The second half of the concert was given completely to Il delirio amoroso, a musical paen to classical Greek thoughts of love and passion.  It opened with more wonderful solo work from Ms. Ghez, this time standing in the soloist’s spot in front of the orchestra; a few minutes later, however, Ms. Yoncheva playfully waltzed onto the stage in a flowy, white, floor-length number, and took over.   Her voice was rich and full, easily riding above the combined orchestral forces playing behind her without overpowering them.   She managed the coloratura runs smoothly and without a hint of effort; just as impressively, she kept a lightness and purity in her tone during longer lines and held notes.  While Ms. Yoncheva’s robust, modern sound would have turned-off purists preferring a lighter tone or perhaps a counter-tenor, her interpretation still remained true to the period-informed sensibilities Ms. Haïm brought to the evening.  It is a voice that I would like to hear again and again, and I was not the only one; after the concert, many patrons went down to the WDCH gift store looking for a recording by Ms. Yoncheva, only to be turned away by a staffer who let them know that no such recording is available for sale — yet.

There is also the matter of Ms. Yoncheva’s performance style that may give purists pause.  In both her dress and demeanor, she brought a light-hearted sultriness to the performance that was in the neighborhood of the work’s Arcadian plot while adding touch of extra flirtyness to the mix.  No opportunity to purse lips or shake hips was spared.  When one of the straps of her dress fell off of her shoulder, she seemed to tilt her head more often to that side, as if to draw attention to it.  I thought her cutesy behavior was always on this side of tasteful, but I wouldn’t be surprised if others disagreed.  If she can be forgiven for highlighting her womanly charms for the benefit of the performance, perhaps I can be forgiven for having them remind me of what a Jennifer Coolidge character would be like if she sang opera (more Paullette from Legally Blonde than Stifler’s mom).

The audience reaction to Ms. Yoncheva’s performance was strongly positive.  “Brava!” was yelled by many.  Cheers for Ms. Haïm and Mr. Chalifour, who played some fiendishly difficult solos of his own, were equally enthusiastic.  The loudest cheers were reserved for Ms. Ghez, who always seems to be a crowd favorite.  As an encore, orchestra and soprano offered Forets paisibles by Rameau.  Ms. Yoncheva took the opportunity to be even more cutesy, practically skipping on the stage while barefoot, lightly flirting with the orchestra and the audience, at one point even draping herself across the empty risers on stage left.  It was sweet, endearing, and all in good fun.  Smiles could be found throughout the hall, both on stage and in the audience.  At the center was Ms. Haïm, looking content and satisfied with all that had occurred.   Let’s hope we see her conducting the LA Phil again soon.

Other random thoughts:

Haydn:  Symphonies 48 and 43 (Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra; Lucinda Carver, conductor)

  • Despite Ms. Gilbert’s prominence in both halves of the concert, even taking bows at the front of the stage with conductor and soprano soloist, her name was nowhere to be found in the program or online.   Also missing was any acknowledgement of either John Schneiderman on lute or Lucinda Carver on harpsichord.
  • Ms. Carver, of course, is well known by local audiences for both her keyboard work as well as being the former music director of the long-lost Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra; her recording of Haydn symphonies with that orchestra is among my favorite by that composer.
  • When I first sat down, I was a bit surprised to see two harpsichords on stage, and I was wondering how Ms. Haïm would split the workload with Ms. Carver.  As it turned out, Ms. Haïm played the solo and improvisatory parts while Ms. Carver would play the more straightforward continuo lines.  There were some tutti passages where they both played.
  •  One additional gripe about the printed program for the evening:   Howard Posner’s fine notes tied the whole concert together; however, unlike most other concert’s program notes, there was no listing of instrumentation, nor any mention of when the first LA Phil performance of each work was or who conducted it.
  • The Concerto Grosso was nice, but was I the only one who was very disappointed that the Water Music Suite in D was not performed?  I’m a sucker for the sound of trumpets in Händel, and it’d have been a kick to hear the “alla Hornpipe” movement inside the friendly confines of WDCH.
  • The string contingent was predictably smaller than normal (9 first violins, 9 seconds, 4 violas, 4 cellos, 2 basses), arranged in that order from the audiences left to right.  The most curious thing:  the violas were relegated to sit behind the woodwinds.  Insert your favorite viola joke or jab here.
  • For other points of view, see reviews in the Los Angeles Times and OutWest Arts
  • I can’t remember the last time I used this many umlauts.  Or are they more properly diareses?  Regardless, I’m kinda tired of them, whatever they are  . . .

Los Angeles Philharmonic; November 20, 2011; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Emmanuelle Haïm, conductor and harpsichord
Sonya Yoncheva, soprano
Ariana Ghez, oboe
Rotem Gilbert, recorder

Händel: Concerto Grosso in G, Op. 6 No. 1
Händel: Water Music Suite No. 3 in G
Händel: Water Music Suite No. 1 in F
Händel: Il delirio amoroso


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3 thoughts on “Two women and an orchestra: Emmanuelle Haïm and Sonya Yoncheva debut with the LA Phil in an all-Händel program

  1. I think you could have spared yourself the umlauts in the case of Handel. Once he Anglicized his name, he dropped them, I believe. Perhaps you could have used the umlaut for his name with the early cantata, then dropped it for the Water Music, written in England. In any case, in the newspaper biz, I’ve always used the Schwann guides (now, no longer printed) as a guide for the spelling of composers names. That was what was agreed upon at the Times, and I carried the practice to the Register.


    • This is good to know. The MLA Handbook has been the unofficial style guide for AiY since its inception; unfortunately, MLA is missing a chapter on proper use of accents for composer’s names. Maybe someone’s got a Schwann guide that they’re trying to get rid of somewhere on the interwebs.


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