Historically, when it came to Western music, Japan clean missed the baroque.
After initial contact with Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century, it didn't take long for Honshu's Christianized enclaves to nurture an accomplished crop of musicians on such Renaissance instruments as the rebec, charamella, lute and organ.
But then came the "closed door" diktat of the Tokugawa shogunate, a 300-year clampdown that quarantined the "Hermit Kingdom" from foreign influences. It wasn't until late 19th century that the door reopened, right in time for Europe's Romantic repertoire to take the newly restored Meiji Empire by storm.
With its characteristically adaptive flair, the country promptly became a formidable force in the world of Western art music, but largely on modern instruments (many of the most deluxe models are now made in Japan). Lost in the interregnum, though, was any tradition of baroque performance on period instruments.
Masaaki Suzuki has devoted most of the past three decades to filling this gap. In the process, his Baroque Collegium Japan has become one of the most sought-after ensembles on the Early Music circuit, playing to packed houses both at home and abroad. This month, a sell-out crowd of local aficionados at last got a chance to see the group right here in town at the Chan Centre, courtesy of Early Music Vancouver (EMV).
The 11 musicians presented a rather austere tableau onstage, dressed in stark black-and-white -- even oboist Masamitsu San'nomiya, who sported a white wingtip collar on a black shirtwaist unbuttoned, Elvis style, down to his sternum. They maintained a decorous economy of gesture that belied the fervor of their dynamics.
Suzuki directed from the register of a Vancouver-built Tomlinson harpsichord, presenting the back of his tuxedo and his leonine white mane to the audience. When not playing continuo, he shaped the music with sweeping, sculptural overhead passes; when his hands were busy on the keys, he still managed to conduct rhythmically using his trim goatee as a pointer.
In tribute to the ensemble's namesake, the evening was themed around works that Bach cherished in his own copious library of musical scores. The only composition by the great master himself was the programme-opener, the Orchestral Suite in B minor, as rescored in the 1730's to feature solos on the then-newly fashionable traverse flute. In the dexterous hands of Collegium flautist Liliko Maeda the old instrument sounded as fresh as ever.
Likewise San'nomiya's perorations in a D minor concerto for oboe d'amore by Alessandro Marcello. A Teleman Quatuor in D major showcased the kind of intimate 18th century chamber works disseminated for DIY home performance by amateur music lovers due to the then novel technology of mass printed folio scores.
Next up was a 1711 D minor concerto from L'estro armonica by Bach's avowed role model for string composition, Antonio Vivaldi. The piece afforded full play to first violinist Ryo Terakado's virtuosity -- stunning flights of passion, all executed with expressionless stoicism.
No such deadpan for British soprano Joanne Lunn, guest soloist for the evening's two banner performances: Francesco Conti's Languet anima mea and Handel's devotional cantata Silete venti. In marked contrast to the Collegium's sombre array, she stood tall and blonde, sheathed in grasshopper green taffeta, flamboyantly emoting non-stop, even during the instrumental interludes between her own vocal flights.
Such a style worked well for the overwrought religious ecstasy of the Conti offertory (sample libretto: "Oh wounds, heavenly life...pierce my breast, run me through, thus the loved one lets me remain happy!"). But where it really came into its own was in the Silete venti.
Lasting barely 10 minutes, the work nevertheless vaunts do Handel's consummate skill as musical dramatist. It's a perfect little opera, with two distinct voices, but played out entirely on the contemplative stage of a prayerful soul.
After a customary fanfare, Handel opens with a gusty overature, as of turbulent breezes. This was cut short by a soprano recitative ordering "Silence, ye winds!" Then, in eloquent andante, the soloist implored "Sweet love, dear Jesus...come pierce me...for within you do I exist."
To which Lunn, changing personae, answered her own prayer in, presumably, the voice of Jesus Himself: "Oh happy soul...crown me with your honors," and then extended Godly permission for the winds to stir again to "let the souls of the blessed...inhale heaven's glorious atmosphere."
What's left to say, after that, but simply "Alleluja." And, of course, nobody can say it quite like Handel. Except, unlike the famous Messiah chorus, this "Alleluja" was not so much majestic as simply ebullient -- almost giggly -- bringing the concert to a capering close and the audience to a standing ovation.