When it comes to early-music orchestras, Los Angeles is on the map, but barely.
Consider Boston's Handel & Haydn Society. It's the oldest continuously active performing-arts organization in the nation. It's responsible for premiering Handel's "Messiah" in the United States (in 1818, nearly 80 years after it was written). It plays at Boston's Symphony Hall, among other venues, puts on more than 20 performances in a seven-month season and claims an attendance larger than 30,000 a year.
On the West Coast, there's a thriving scene in Portland and Seattle, but it's San Francisco that has the lock on early-music superlatives. Its Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, though only 20 years old, stands at the top of the U.S.' "historically informed performance" ensembles in budget ($2.8 million), number of concerts (32 in the Bay Area, plus national and international tours) and recordings (30).
And in L.A.? The city has its share of programming, mini-festivals and practitioners in the HIP realm, but the numbers of concerts, the budgets of the ensembles and their audiences can't compare. The biggest names tend to be those imported for music series around town.
One local ensemble sees this situation as an emphatic invitation to grow. Musica Angelica has successfully presented 10 subscription seasons of Baroque and Renaissance music, with as many as 11 performances in five months, and it has had some high-profile guest gigs -- playing for the Los Angeles Opera production of Handel's "Julius Caesar" last season, for example, and for Long Beach Opera as well. But next weekend it launches its biggest season, adding a four-program, seven-performance orchestra series to its usual smaller-force chamber series and collaborations with other organizations. That means sustaining a bigger band, at bigger venues -- and it will be fueled by some big names.
"We hope with this new initiative to increase our audience and subscribership," said Musica Angelica's director Michael Eagan, a lute player who co-founded the group in 1993. (Cellist Mark Chatfield, its other founder, died in 1998.)
The spotlight in the new series will be on two imported stars, one conductor and one conductor-player. Giovanni Antonini, who garnered a Grammy Award two years ago for collaborating on Cecilia Bartoli's "The Vivaldi Album," will conduct and play (flute and recorder) this weekend and next in programs featuring Vivaldi and Bach.
In the spring, Harry Bicket, the British conductor who triumphed with the group in L.A. Opera's "Julius Caesar," will lead a much-expanded ensemble in Bach's Mass in B minor and in a Handel and Rameau program.
"Antonini really represents the cutting edge of the period instrument movement," Eagan said. "He and his group, Il Giardino Armonico, are spectacular musicians. There's nothing stale or bookish about their music making; it is virtuosic, sauve and fresh, all at the same time."
The Milanese musician said he hasn't heard Musica Angelica live, although he knows the work of the two other soloists on the first of his two programs: violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock, who frequently plays with the ensemble, and oboist Gonzalo Ruiz, both from the Bay Area.
"I heard a CD of the group and found it was a very good record," Antonini said from Milan. "It's quite rare that I conduct and play as a soloist for a Baroque group other than Il Giardino. For me, it's something of an experiment. We have to see how it's for them, too."
Antonini will play Vivaldi's Recorder Concerto in C on the opening concerts. Blumenstock will play the Bach Concerto in A minor, and Ruiz will tackle Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 2, but using an oboe instead of the usual flute as the solo instrument. ("What has come down to us is not necessarily the original version," Eagan said. "This will be Ruiz's reconstruction of what he feels was the original.")
On Nov. 16 and 17, Antonini will play recorder and flute in works by Vivaldi, Telemann and little-known Veronese composer Evaristo dall'Abaco.
"In a small group, it's important to have a common idea of articulation, to speak the same language," Antonini said. "This is the function of a conductor.... After this, there is space for individual expression."
As for future visits, Antonini said, "Nothing is excluded."
Eagan is also high on Bicket's return to conduct what Eagan calls "the high point of the season," Bach's B-minor Mass: "He has the most experience conducting large orchestral Baroque works, and he was able to elicit extraordinary music-making from the players."
Eagan's expansion plans have some parallel in the history of the Bay Area's Philharmonia Baroque, which is led by Briton Nicholas McGegan, who also heads period ensembles or programs in Ireland; St. Paul, Minn.; and Germany.