The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, known for championing Baroque to early Romantic compositions and for commissioning works, opened its 2019-20 season Thursday at Herbst Theatre with sublime performances of works by Handel as well as the premiere of Caroline Shaw’s beguiling oratorio “The Listeners” in a program aptly named “A Cosmic Notion.”
Under the direction of Nicholas McGegan, now in his 35th and final season as music director of the 39-year-old ensemble (Richard Egarr becomes music director designate for the 2020-21 season), the evening opened with resplendent deliveries of Handel’s “Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne,” HMV 74 (“Eternal Source of Light Divine”), and the Suite from “Terpsichore,” HWV 8b.
In the nine-movement “Ode,” McGegan’s lively conducting and joyful interactions with the vocalists and lush-sounding orchestra instilled the occasion with vibrancy, as did crisply toned countertenor Reginald Mobley, whose pairing with a trumpet suggested the dawn of a new day. Also notable were Bruce Lamott’s plushly sonorous chorale, clear-voiced soprano Arwen Myers, resilient bass-baritone Dashon Burton and velvety contralto Avery Amereau.
In “Terpsichore,” a prologue of the opera “Il pastor fido,” McGegan guided the orchestra with stately grace through the Prelude. It was followed by an energetic gallop culminating in a foot stomp from the conductor in the Sarabande, French-styled flair for the Gigue, playfulness through the Air (with its enchanting interplay of strings and woodwinds), pure majesty in the Ballo, and, finally, a glorious Chaconne.
After intermission, PBO unveiled the otherworldly “The Listeners,” its fourth commission by Shaw, who, in 2013, at 30, became the youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her a cappella work “Partita for 8 Voices.”
“The Listeners,” which, according to Shaw, draws inspiration from Handel, Buxtehude and Bach, early on rustled with timpani drumbeats, which gave way to the meltingly beautiful sound of Amereau. Soon, the proceedings were burnished by strings and woodwinds, which ushered in Burton (for whom this role was written), who evocatively vocalized lines from Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”
The work turned to the “Golden Record” recording of greetings in 55 languages from the spaceship Voyager 1, and later employed a recording from Carl Sagan’s 1994 “Lost Lecture” at Cornell University.
Both recordings are time capsule-like attempts to communicate with extraterrestrials and make complete sense to us earthlings, particularly in the context of Shaw’s cosmically rich score, which ended with the bass section and then chorus conveying the vastness of space.
Earthlings in the audience gave McGegan, an on-hand Shaw, the vocalists and the PBO a hearty applause after the performance.
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale
Where: First United Methodist Church, 625 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 18
Tickets: $37 to $130
Contact: (415) 392-4400, www.philharmonia.org
Note: Performances also are at 8 p.m. Oct. 19 and 4 p.m. Oct. 20 at First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way, Berkeley.