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Baroque Music, Gallic Style

New York
Church of the Good Shepherd
11/18/2023 -  
Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de La Guerre: Trio Sonata No. 1 in G minor
Jean-Baptiste Lully: Petits motets, LWV 77: 12. “Regina cæli” – Thésée, LWV 51: Overture
Henry Purcell: Ye Tuneful Muses, Z344
Jean-Féry Rebel: Les Caractères de la danse
Marc-Antoine Charpentier: La Couronne de fleurs, H. 486

Yale Voxtet: Juliet Papadopoulos, Ellen Robertson (Sopranos), Sandy Sharis, Veronica Roan (Mezzo-Sopranos), Fredy Bonilla, Peter Schertz (Baritones), Michaël Hudets, Trevor Scott (Tenors) – The Sebastians: Daniel S. Lee, Nicholas DiEugenio (Violins), Eric Seltzer (Cello), Jeffrey Grossman (Harpsichord), Geoffrey Burgess, Margaret Owens (Oboes), Annie Garlid (Viola), Nathaniel Chase (Violone), Charles Weaver (Theorbo)

Yale Voxtet (© Robert Lisak)

There is neither rhythm nor melody in French music. The singing is endless squawking. Unbearable to the unbiased ear. The French have no music and can never have any music.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The last two days have produced two musical parallel Baroque universes. On Thursday, I Gemelli gave us bouncy buoyant, lubricious, deliciously ornery Italian Baroque songs, duets, madrigals. A mere 48 hours later, The Sebastians and Yale Voxtet gave us Baroque French music: elegant, suave, clever, obsequious (ass‑kissing a pair of Monarchs) and pretty‑pretty.

The pedants would call it Apollonian and Dionysian.

True, this “Voices of Versailles” broke the French mold with a powerful ode, Ye Tuneful Muses. This, like the Gallic works, was dedicated to royalty, Charles II. But like everything written by Purcell, it was an giant merger of chorus, orchestra, solos to the usually laudatory (happily anonymous) verses.

This was for the soloists of the Yale Voxtet to shine, for Purcell was always fast‑moving, engagingly harmonic, easily superseding the mundane lyrics. So modern were the voices that the period orchestra of The Sebastians seemed more antediluvian than antique. But it still worked well.

I must plead a strong mea culpa and a stronger accusation to the New York Transit System. Daily it is questionable. On weekends, it is impossible. Or as the Latin goes, Sick Transit Inglorious Saturday. So I missed the first two works. But arrived for the Purcell–and the ridiculously brilliant Les Caractères de la danse. The closest work I know is Darius Milhaud’s Kentuckiana where he merged about 25 Kentucky songs in ten minutes. M. Jean-Féry Rebel did the trick of writing minuets, chaconnes, sarabandes, jigs, rigaudons, gavottes etc etc in about eight minutes.

The Sebastians–especially the virtuosic tricks of fiddlers Daniel S. Lee and Nicholas DiEugenio–didn’t dance through the eight minutes. That would be impossible. For the rhythms altered after every eight measures, from violent fast to slow, but never ever laggard.

J.-F. Rebel/M.-A. Charpentier (© Watteau etching/1682 Almanach Royal)

Probably it was written for Louis XIV’s guests combine dance with music. But that seems impossible. Think of it as an animated party piece.

The highlight was an opera (more a pastorale, an interlude, actually the introduction to a Molière play). It had the usual cast of happy shepherds, goddesses, Pan of course, and a large cast about which I lost count. The idea was simple: The goddess of spring welcomes the season, and then proposes to shepherds and shepherdesses a contest. “Who will praise Louis XIV more, for his goodness, his military prowess, his Monarchial Malarchy?” The winner gains the titular “Crown of Flowers”.

(That nasty old Pan sings that the contest is null and void. “No words are great enough to sketch LOUIS image.”)

All the soloists above sang with spirit, with élan, the orchestra skipped through the bucolic nonsense. And the chorus? Well, the venue is the Church of the Good Shepherd. These guys and girls were terrific shepherds.

And if we can’t have Charpentier’s angelic Christmas Mass, this elegiac bauble was a secular substitute.

Harry Rolnick



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