Monday, February 13, 2017

American Bach Soloists’ “Weekend in Paris” was Too Much of a Good Thing

Yesterday afternoon at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, American Bach Soloists (ABS) presented the first concert in its annual series of three. The full title of the program was A Weekend in Paris at the Opéra, Ballet, & Chapelle. As might be guessed from that title, the repertoire made for a busy weekend; and there is a good chance that many, if not all, of the works (or, for that matter, the composers) were unfamiliar to many in the audience.

Nevertheless, the title was slightly deceptive. Drawing upon that distinction between the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries that has been previously discussed on this site, there is a good chance that all of the music performed was “private” (rather than public), created and then performed primarily for the pleasure of the monarch and enjoyed only by those courtiers who happened to be in the monarch’s presence at the time. Even the sacred music was most likely performed by the chapelle royale at services planned for the king’s pleasure; and “evening entertainments” frequently entailed an opera in which dancing figured as significantly as singing. (Also, not to be too nit-picking, most of these events, both sacred and secular, probably took place at Versailles, rather than in Paris!)

Details aside, ABS Artistic and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas prepared a program that amounted to an extensive journey of discovery through music that seldom finds its way to public performing spaces these days. The presentation of that program brought the ABS instrumentalists together with the American Bach Choir (divided into five sections, with separate sections for baritone and bass voices, for the occasion) and three vocal soloists, soprano Nola Richardson, haute-contre Steven Brennfleck, and baritone William Sharp. All those resources were required for two motets, both settings of texts from the Book of Psalms, one by Michel Corrette (Psalm 148) and the other by Jean-Joseph de Mondonville (Psalm 114). These vocal selections were interleaved between three suites of dance music composed, respectively, by Jean-Féry Rebel, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Marin Marais.

The selection most likely to have a ring of familiarity was Corrette’s motet. If the composer’s name is not familiar to many, listeners would quickly recognize that his Laudate Dominum (praise the Lord) motet amounted to an arrangement of “La Primavera” (the spring), the first of the four violin concertos by Antonio Vivaldi collected as The Four Seasons. All three movements of this concerto have been reworked, preceded by a brief soprano aria and an instrumental interlude. In addition to adding vocal parts, Corrette augmented Vivaldi’s string instrumentation with pairs of flutes, oboes, horns, and bassoons.

The result could not have been more engaging, even if the religious connotations took a back seat. One was less inclined to follow the sacred text in the program book in favor of following pleasant memories of past Vivaldi performances. Indeed, Corrette did not neglect the role of the violin soloist; and Elizabeth Blumenstock was thoroughly delightful in transplanting Vivaldi’s virtuosity into the sacred French setting. Every now and then, however, Corrette saw fit to turn a solo passage or two over to the wind players, recasting familiar music in a context of new sonorities. Both the choral and solo vocal passages, on the other hand, tended to serve as an overlay to Vivaldi’s music, thus saving any singers from trying to compete with virtuoso violin passages on the violinist’s “turf!”

Corrette’s motet was preceded by Rebel’s “Les Caractères de la Danse” (the types of dance). This is a fantasia that summarizes the rhythms and styles of about a dozen difference dance forms over the course of about ten minutes. (Think of it as a Cliff Notes treatment of how one danced at Versailles during the eighteenth century.) Rebel’s transitions are abrupt but never awkward, and he knew how to give each represented category its distinctive quality.

This offering then served as a “primer” to prepare the listener for the eighteen instrumental selections from Rameau’s 1739 opera Dardanus, which followed the Corrette motet. The attentive listener was now better prepared to appreciate the extensive diversity of styles, even if (s)he had no idea what the dancers would have been doing while this music was played. Keyboardists probably also recognized the “Air gay en rondeau” as an appropriation of another rondeau from Rameau’s 1724 (revised in 1731) Pièces de Clavecin, where the piece was called “Les Niais de Sologne” (the pretending fools).

Taken together these three compositions made for a highly diverse “song and dance” collection. There was more than enough to satisfying the curiosity of the attentive listener, and that was the problem. Two more compositions remained after the intermission to add to this feast of abundance. Mondonville’s motet was the greater disappointment. With its preponderance of slow tempos, his traversal of the Psalm text felt rather like a slog in the context of Corrette’s brisker rhetoric, even if the composer’s experimentation with repeated syllables felt a bit like a foretaste of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha opera.

The program then concluded with three brief instrumental selections from Marais’ opera Sémélé, followed by one very long chaconne. Marais composed this in such a way that the basic repeated form would provide the groundwork (pun intended) for virtuoso writing for all the different instrumental voices in the ensemble. This may well have been intended for the conclusion of the opera, since it could also have been used to provide music for all of the participating singers and dancers to take their bows. Indeed, this could well have been a foretaste of the apotheoses that began to conclude ballets during the nineteenth century, allowing each dancer one final opportunity to display his/her skills in a final flourish of clever footing.

In this particular case, however, all of Marais’ virtuosity fell on listening minds that had already been filled beyond capacity with no end of imaginative inventiveness for both instrumentalists and vocalists. Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. This “weekend in Paris” might have done well to end about a day earlier!

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