The ideal concert to celebrate the winter solstice with was a warm and toasty bouquet of Baroque chamber classics in the warm and toasty Kohl Mansion in Burlingame, served up by a team of Baroque specialists from Musica Pacifica, on instruments in the original style. Pacifica’s Judith Linsenberg and Charles Sherman were joined by three equally accomplished guest artists. The Music at Kohl Mansion organization sponsored the concert.
The Kohl Mansion’s Great Hall is a richly wood-paneled elongated ballroom, with high ceilings and bright, cheering acoustics. For the season, it’s been decorated with two Christmas trees in the corners. It’s the most intimate space for regular public chamber music in the county and it’s probably the best single concert venue we have. The performers play on a raised platform against the middle of the long inner wall. Sightlines for the audience can be tricky, which matters little, as the music is entirely audible.
Sunday’s program of works played by various combinations of the five instrumentalists credited all the most famous Baroque composers: Handel and Telemann, Bach and Vivaldi. There were also a few names listeners might not have known. How many are familiar with Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, for instance? He was a noted Austrian violinist of the 17th century whose masterwork is a set called the Mystery Sonatas, paralleling the events in the Gospel story commemorated in the Catholic rosary.
Ingrid Matthews played the first of these, on the Annunciation to Mary. The raw intensity of Biber’s music was offset by the light, feathery tone of Matthews’ violin. It was a vivid, unforgettable piece that commanded complete attention. This was all the more remarkable because Matthews can also be a retiring player. She was standing less than ten feet away from me — this hall is that tiny —so close that I could hear her breathe, but in Handel’s rich and full Trio Sonata in G, her voice barely stood out from the background. In the Biber, she was accompanied by continuo played by Charles Sherman on harpsichord and Tanya Tomkins on cello.
One name listeners might think they recognized was Gabrieli. Yet this wasn’t the famous Venetian, Giovanni Gabrieli, but the unrelated Domenico from Bologna over half a century later (and sometimes spelled Gabrielli). He was one of the first composers to bring the cello out from the continuo part and give it solos. In fact, he was one of the first composers to write for an entirely unaccompanied cello. It took Bach, some decades later still, to bring this form to genius, but Gabrieli’s Ricercar in A Minor was still a good display piece for Tomkins.
The cello also got a solo say in a Sonata for four in A Major by George Philipp Telemann. This had separated sound where Handel had blended. It was brittle and steely as Telemann often is. Tomkins and Matthews both dug in to their strings. Judith Linsenberg, playing a battery of different-sized recorders on this and other works, gave bright and whirling playing. Her big solo work was an intricate and interwoven sonata in C by Bach.
Some of the best music came when all five performers — oboeist Michael Dupree completed the band —were on stage. Dupree got a chance to apply some advanced harmonies in a light, lively chamber concerto in D by Vivaldi, and another such concerto by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier in E minor was equally charming.
The most impressive playing by the whole group came in a set of pastoral dances by Jean-Philippe Rameau. Taken from his opera-ballet Les Indes Galantes,” inspired by the visit of Native American chiefs to the French court, these familiar pieces were taken fast and lively, with country-dance style snaps and drones, even slightly bent notes.
Making little careful touches like these, and charmingly wrapping up the ends of pieces in the musical equivalent of Christmas ribbon, ensured that Musica Pacifica’s concert remained charming and lively throughout.
The next Music at Kohl Mansion concert will be a chamber performance by musicians of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, with Mozart, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and a new piece with marimba, on Jan. 11.