SAN FRANCISCO -- Come December, music director Nicholas McGegan often leads the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in one of Handel's large-scale works; the early-music ensemble will present the composer's evergreen "Messiah" next weekend at various locations, beginning Dec. 14 with Cal Performances on the UC Berkeley campus.

Now, though, McGegan is taking a small but intriguing detour into the music of three of Handel's contemporaries -- the 18th century English composers William Boyce, John Stanley and William Croft.

The central work on Friday's opening concert at the SFJazz Center was Boyce's "Solomon, a serenata." Stanley's Concerto for Strings in B minor, Op. 2, No. 2, and Croft's "The Burial Service" completed the program, which repeats through Tuesday in Berkeley and Palo Alto.

Boyce's "Solomon," composed 1741-42, differs from Handel's 1748 "Solomon" in significant ways. Originally called an oratorio erotico, it has little to do with the Biblical king as depicted in Handel's score.

Instead, loosely based on the Old Testament "Song of Solomon," it follows a couple -- simply identified as "He" and "She" -- through a love relationship. In poetry that ranges from pastoral to erotic, Edward Moore's libretto describes their attraction, courtship, and consummation in sensual terms, with a backdrop of luscious fruits, singing birds and fragrant flowers setting the scene. A chorus of virgins looks on, commenting on the action.


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Call it an 18th century musical bodice-ripper. By today's standards, it's pretty tame, but Moore's intent is clear. And Boyce's music is gorgeous -- rich with character, filled with recitatives, luxuriant arias and duets for the besotted couple.

Friday, McGegan led an engaging performance. The overture alone -- three beguiling dance episodes, played with flair by the orchestra -- was captivating.

But "Solomon" is a showcase for its two vocal soloists, and McGegan had chosen excellent singers. Soprano Yulia Van Doren's shapely, fresh-toned instrument was especially well-suited to the female role, and she sang with vibrant expressiveness, negotiating florid arias such as "Beneath his ample shade I lay" with ease and voluptuous charm. Tenor Thomas Cooley employed his firm, agile voice to excellent effect throughout; his great aria, "Softly arise, O southern breeze," was a highlight, with principal bassoonist Danny Bond supplying graceful accompaniment.

McGegan, conducting with an ear for the score's buoyant flow, also drew zesty individual contributions from concertmaster Lisa Weiss, cellist William Skeen, and flutist Stephen Schultz. Baroque trumpeters Kathryn Adduci and Fred Holmgren sounded authoritative in Van Doren's "O fill with cooling juice the bowl," and Hanneke van Proosdij performed double duty on organ and harpsichord. Bruce Lamott's 24-voice Philharmonia Chorale sang with luster and precision.

Under McGegan's direction, Stanley's Concerto for Strings also made a strong impression. Like Boyce, Stanley -- blind from a young age -- suffered from comparisons to Handel, but this concerto grosso is a work of tremendous variety. McGegan led a winning performance, making the most of the score's contrasting textures and tempos; Weiss and Skeen delved into their solos with focus and energy.

The program opened with Croft's "Burial Service," in an affecting performance by the Philharmonia Chorale, accompanied by a continuo group of Skeen, van Proosdij (organ) and Kristin Zoernig on double bass. Under McGegan, who dedicated the performance to the memory of Nelson Mandela, its gentle sonorities sounded uncommonly pure. The chorus sang with such crisp articulation that no texts were needed.

According to Lamott's program notes, Croft composed the score for the funeral of Prince George of Denmark in 1708 (or, perhaps, for his wife, Queen Anne, in 1714), and McGegan, in his opening remarks, noted that it's been used in every state funeral at Westminster Abbey since then -- including those of Winston Churchill, Princess Diana and, of course, Handel. Boyce, Stanley and Croft may have lived in Handel's shadow, but in this program their music stands on its own.

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Nicholas McGegan, music director; Yulia Van Doren, soprano; Thomas Cooley, tenor
Through: Dec. 10
When/where: 8 p.m. Dec. 7 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8, First Congregational Church, Berkeley; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 10, Bing Concert Hall, Stanford University
Tickets: Berkeley, $25-$97, 415-252-1288 www.philharmonia.org; Stanford, $10-$95, 650-725-2787, http://stanfordlive@stanford.edu