NEWPORT BEACH — On the religious calendar, Nov. 22 is the official celebration of Cecilia, patron saint of music and musicians. Saturday night at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, the Irvine Camerata opened its second season with "A Festive Program of Music for St. Cecilia's Day" and performed in a manner to gladden the heart of any saint.
Two major works--Alessandro Scarlatti's "Saint Cecilia" Mass (1720) and Handel's "Ode for Saint Cecilia's Day" (1739) were preceded by Scarlatti's ingenious "Mottetto per ogni Santo o Santa" (Little Motet for Any Saint), into which is inserted the name of the saint of choice, thus assuring three paeans to Cecilia on this occasion.
Robert Hickok conducted with conspicuous attention to detail and perfect clarity of beat, maintaining taut but flexible control of his forces. The lack of ambiguity in his uneffusive indications granted observers as well as musicians the rare pleasure of instant understanding of what was being asked.
Scarlatti's little Motet--a hymn of praise built on repeated patterns of melismas and counterpoint decked out in happy fioritura-- sped by. Not so his ebullient Mass, which diligently perks on a bit too long for interest to be sustained by its less-than-inspired level of invention. The very appealing, slow, quiet "Agnus Dei" that concludes it is too late.
The performance itself, shrewdly paced and judiciously shaped, never dragged or sagged. Just two of the five soloists, soprano Sandra Walker and mezzo Karen Anacker, possessed anything like vocal strength, but all were refined and accurate musicians.
The chorus reveled in the long phrases and contrapuntal chases of Handel's great "Ode," and the orchestra did a collective virtuoso turn, with superb solos by flutist Lawrence Duckles and trumpeter Alfred Lang. Soprano Laura Fries and tenor Bruce Johnson offered style, musicianship and tentative, cloudy-toned vocalism in the demanding arias. Handel's requirements of easy high notes, clean, clear sound and frequent, articulate trills went largely unfulfilled.
Continuo players Malcolm Hamilton (harpsichord), Ronald Huntington (organ) and Ian McKinnell (cello) lent the best kind of support: rock solid and unobtrusive. McKinnell's solo before "What passion cannot music raise and quell!" in the Handel, for sheer warmth and eloquence, was the evening's artistic highlight.