Arts & Events

American Bach Soloists Perform French Baroque Music

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday February 17, 2017 - 11:01:00 AM

Led by their Music Director Jeffrey Thomas, American Bach Soloists gave a series of concerts featuring French Baroque music throughout the Bay Area February 10-13, 2017. I attended their Saturday, February 11 performance at Berkeley’s First Presbyterian Church. In the 17th and early 18th century, French music was centered at the royal courts of King Louis XIII and Louis XIV. Under Louis XIII, an ensemble of the finest string players was created in 1626, called Les vingt-quatre Violons du Roi (The 24 Violins of the King). Occasionally, this group of violins, violas, and cellos combined forces with the royal wind and brass ensemble, La Grande Écurie, so-named because wind and brass music was mostly played for the hunt and dressage, thus emanating from the royal stables. Later, Louis XIV added more string players to the initial 24 strings, and this larger group was called La grande bande.  

Louis XIV not only loved music; most of all he loved the dance. He himself debuted as a ballet dancer at age 13, and his love of dance never waned. Impressed by the talents of Florentine-born Gian-Battista Lulli (Jean-Baptiste Lully) as a musician, composer and ballet dancer, Louis XIV placed Lully in charge of the King’s music in 1661. Lully initially created ballets and stage-plays with musical and ballet insertions. For the latter, he collaborated with the great French writer of comedies Molière, most notably in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1669). Later, Lully turned to opera, where he combined the experiments of the Florentine camerata and the decisive innovations of Monteverdi, on one hand, and, on the other hand, the declamatory style of the French alexandrin, a formal verse-pattern that gave great dignity and control to vocal and musical declamation, although it emphasized control of the passions rather than the full expression of the passions themselves. However, in all his music, Lully retained the centrality of dance. 

It is no surprise, then, that the concert program of French Baroque music offered this weekend by American Bach Soloists concentrated largely on the various dance-forms that were so central to this music. However, as he did in his 2015 summer festival of Music of the Court at Versailles, for some unknown reason Jeffrey Thoma chose not to include in these programs a single work by Jean-Baptiste Lully, focusing instead on composers who came after Lully. Though I find this both unfathomable and regrettable, there are, to be sure, plenty of worthy composers who, upon the death of Lully in 1687, developed further the very same components instituted by Lully, namely, the detailed ensemble control of the orchestra, a lightness of sonority, and a graceful reliance on dance structures. 

First on this ABS program was, fittingly, Les Caractères de la Danse by Jean-Féry-Rebel. This brief work from 1715 was written for Françoise Prévost, the first prima ballerina of the theatre. Musically, Rebel’s piece consists of different dances; and with each new dance Prévost danced and mimed a specific character – a blundering elderly lover for the courante, a young fool for the gigue, an embittered lover for the grave sarabande, a gracious young girl for the menuet, etc. Personally, without the presence of a dancer, I lost track of which dance was supposed to illustrate which character; but I can well imagine that if one saw a great ballerina perform this work one would no doubt find it entrancing. Without this, it was underwhelming. 

Next on the program was Laudate Dominum de caelis, from Psalm 148, by Michel Corrette (1707-1795). Here Michel Corrette stepped into the heated debates over the respective merits of French and Italian music, debates which erupted in 1752 into La Guerre des Bouffons; and Corrette adroitly combined the best of both the French and Italian styles. In this psalm of 1766, Corrette begins in a brief, very French style. Then a soprano enters singing virtuosic coloratura melismas reminiscent of Italian music. Elegantly sung in Latin here by soprano Nola Richardson, these coloratura passages were impressive, to say the least. Though I’ve heard Nola Richardson before, especially with ABS, with whom she was a charming Galatea in 2015 in Handel’s Acis and Galatea, this time around Nola Richardson was absolutely astounding. Her voice is angelic in tone, yet full of emotional intensity. Richardson’s technical handling of the coloratura passages in this work by Corrette was impeccable. The result was stunningly beautiful. The music itself is Corrette’s adaptation of Vivaldi’s music for “Spring” in his Four Seasons. Here Corrette manages to link up the text of Pslam 148 and the text of Vivaldi’s “Spring” in ways that make both literal and musical sense, thus creating a work that effectively combines the contending Italian and French musical styles. 

Following this work by Corrette came a suite from the opera Dardanus by Jean-Philippe Rameau. The most important composer following in the footsteps of Lully, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) was both a composer and a musical theorist who wrote important treatises on musical theory. He was a friend of Voltaire, whose plays he often set to music in his operas; and he was also a frequent interlocutor in debates over musical theory with Diderot, D’Alembert and Rousseau. What was remarkable about this ABS performance of Rameau’s music was the clarity of each segment. Here the transverse flute, a relatively new instrument at this point in history, was prominently featured. Dance music included lively tambourins, in which violas, cellos, basses and percussion effectively imitated the sound of tambourines. (Incidentally, I’d like to question Jeffrey Thomas as to why no tambourines themselves were heard in these pieces. Surely they were a part of the 18th century ensemble that performed these works.) 

Yet another setting of a Psalm came next, this one by Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville (1711-1772). The Psalm 114, In exitus Israel, was set by Mondonville as a Grand Motet, a large choral work with soloists. Particularly impressive was a solo for countertenor, elegantly sung here by high tenor Steven Brennfleck with a bassoon obligato. Equally impressive was a solo by baritone William Sharp, who sang dramatically of the earthquake associated with Christ. Once again, however, the show was stolen by soprano Nola Richardson, who took the musical momentum created by her colleagues and redoubled it in dramatic fashion. How I would love to hear Nola Richardson in a leading role in an opera by either Jean-Baptiste Lully or Jean-Philippe Rameau! It’s regrettable that she is not in the cast for the forthcoming Philharmonia Baroque performance in April of Rameau’s Le Temple de la Gloire. 

The final work on the program was a series of dances from the opera Sémelé by Marin Marais. This long neglected opera was given its first performance outside Europe by ABS as the culmination of their 2015 summer festival in San Francisco of music from the court at Versailles. Sémelé, as performed by ABS and soloists, was a resounding success. Here, following a few short dance segments from Sémelé, the concert closed with a chaconne from Sémelé introduced by Jeffrey Thomas, with a bit of overkill, as “the greatest chaconne you will ever hear.” Bach notwithstanding, this chaconne by Marin Marais is very good; and it was a fitting climax to this concert of music from the French Baroque. Nonetheless, I can’t help wondering what’s behind Jeffrey Thomas’s persistent omission of works by Jean-Baptiste Lully, who more than anyone created the structural fabric of French music that has endured from the mid-17th century to this day. Thomas could go a long way toward rectifying this oversight by scheduling in the near future one of Lully’s operas, say, Cadmus et Hermione or Alceste, and, if possible, casting Nola Richardson in the lead soprano role.