Amid the continuing hoopla surrounding the opening of Disney Hall, a quieter, yet perhaps just as amazing, cultural milestone was observed near the other end of the Pasadena Freeway on Sunday afternoon. Pasadena's apparently indestructible Coleman chamber music series has started its 100th season, a record of longevity no other American chamber music organization can approach, let alone match.
This occasion called for something unusual, beyond the Coleman's typical servings of touring string quartets and piano trios. What we got was something unusual for this series, all right -- Reinhard Goebel's much-recorded baroque ensemble Musica Antiqua Koln. Moreover, four of the five works on the program (a sixth, a Pergolesi "Salve Regina" in F minor, was deleted) were proudly marked with the Coleman asterisk indicating first performances on this series.
Yet on the whole, this was not a very satisfying concert, for reasons perhaps beyond the control of this skilled 13-member ensemble. Caltech's Beckman Auditorium, the home of these concerts since 1964, is not a great facility for period instruments. The characteristic rasp of the string instruments resounded harshly in the relatively dry acoustics of this hall, and there were problems balancing the two vocal soloists against the ensemble.
Another reason may be a matter of personal taste. The main item on the concert, Pergolesi's "Stabat Mater," is a stone masterpiece, a forward-looking sacred work from the end of the young composer's life (1736) whose lilting melodies and emotional fervor seem to cry out for a larger ensemble and modern instruments. In Musica Antiqua Koln's hands, the music was sharply articulated yet under-characterized, zipping along at fast tempos with brusque codas and hardly any fluctuations in the dynamic levels.
Nancy Argenta's small, agile soprano and Nathalie Stutzmann's expressive, tremulous contralto were a strikingly contrasting pair of soloists -- that is, when they could be heard clearly over the ensemble. It may have been a musicologically correct reading, but it did not move this listener in the way that "anachronistic" orchestral performances have.
The concert opened with a dignified, fairly routine Sinfonia Concertata in C major by Antonio Caldara, followed by a pair of livelier Venetian-baroque Sinfonias in C major and G Minor by Albinoni. Some graceful, vigorously played, relatively underexposed Vivaldi, the motet "In furore giustissimjae irae," closed out the first half, with Argenta managing the vocal line well, though her voice lacked bloom in this room.