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A Duet to Remember
A baroque weekend with the MSO.

Yulio Van Doren sang with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra this weekend.

Forget about more cowbell. What my little corner of the music world needs is more Countertenor.

Milwaukee got just that this weekend, as baroque specialist Nicholas McGegan brought a program of achingly beautiful vocal music to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s subscription concert series.

McGegan’s compatriots were soprano Yulio Van Doren and countertenor Daniel Taylor, who did double duty, performing arias and duets from four of Handel’s operas and as soloists in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater.

Before the vocalists could even take a breath, however, McGegan and the MSO strings set the bar high with a charged and beautifully paced reading of Charles Avison’s Concerto Grosso No. 6, based on Scarlatti keyboard works. McGegan shaped the phrases with great care, and kept the ensemble together in the hectic “Con Furia” movement. But the highlight of the performance was Ilana Setapen’s solo violin, which lead the way in several sections with perfectly executed ornamentation and a gorgeously full, baroque tone.

McGegan is a conductor who truly enjoys himself onstage. He often steps to music’s dance rhythms, caresses held notes into dynamic fullness, and seems to cup phrases in his hands as they build to a resolution. And he’s found kindred spirits in Van Doren and Taylor, who have a casual, engaging presence when singing Handel.

They relish, for example, the sounds of their voices blending together. And with good reason. In the duets, you hear the particular richness in the sonority of the countertenor-soprano harmonies (something you don’t always hear when a female contralto takes the male part, which is common modern practice). In the solos, there was a chance for musical drama, such as the steely cool of Taylor, gloating over his victory in the aria from Giulio Cesare. And spectacularly so in Van Doren’s coquette-ish solo from Orlando, a feast of wild leaps and playful ornament, in which she showed why she is a rising star on the baroque music scene.

The three returned in the second half of the concert for a powerful reading of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, which brought out all the piece’s operatic and emotional richness. 

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