Connecting with Jane Austen’s world

Times Staff Writer

Like a magic window, Con Gioia’s delightful “Music World of Jane Austen” concert Sunday afternoon at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena opened onto several vistas at once. Described as a program of “songs and sonatas from her own collection with readings from her novels,” the concert was one the devastatingly witty author might actually have heard.

With its frame narrative devices and easy interplay among the performers, it also drew the audience into the world of the novels, transforming the church into a pleasurable 18th century drawing room. And while the program occasionally allowed us to smile condescendingly at the taste of the period, including its penchant for translating lyrical Italian into John Bull English, we could wonder too how quaint some of our own cherished notions of song and art might seem a century or two from now.

The vocal heart of the program was the splendid soprano Julianne Baird, an early-musicker who also sang over the weekend with the Aulos Ensemble at the Getty Villa.

Fresh and bright of voice, charming in demeanor, Baird’s best quality perhaps was her ability to interpret and vivify a text, whether a great aria by Handel or Gluck (“Chastity, Thou Cherub Bright” and “What, Alas, Shall Orpheus Do?” respectively) or an anonymous street ballad about the Irishman’s prowess in love. Her word-driven flexibility in rhythm and line was a model to study.


Accompanying her discreetly and sympathetically was fortepianist Preethi de Silva, founding director of Con Gioia, a period instrument ensemble based in Claremont.

Playing a 1981 Robert E. Smith fortepiano based on a 1796 Viennese model, De Silva also fluently performed a movement from a Haydn keyboard sonata, Hob. XV:32, and a sonata for fortepiano accompanied by a violin by the little-known Maria Hester Park nee Reynolds, who in her day was important enough to teach music to the British nobility.

Alfred Cramer was the self-effacing violinist, playing a 1722 -- or thereabouts -- Amati.

Because the acoustics of the church favored singing over speech, British actress Michelle Arthur’s readings of musical scenes and discussions from “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Emma” and “Persuasion” sometimes were muffled. Still, enough of the peerless high comedy came through to set the stage. The Neighborhood Church audience behaved much better than Austen’s characters did.

Actor Edward Mauger made a genial narrator.

Although no one would claim the obscure period songs were deathless masterpieces, they were interesting and well-crafted enough to hold attention. Those by Thomas Arne, the “English” Handel, certainly deserve greater currency. Still, they conjured up Austen’s world in a direct, perceptible way. That magic window opened onto a landscape in which her prose towered above music of her day.