Tuesday, February 11, 2020

French Baroque in Long Beach

Image result for versailles
The Palace of Versailles.


Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, "24 Hours at Versailles," Beverly O'Neill Theater, Long Beach

Louis XIV.
It's good to be the king.

And Louis XIV of France (1638-1715), known as the Sun King, had it good all during his long 72-year reign. We were given a taste of what his typical day was like, musically at least, at the latest concert by Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, dubbed "24 Hours at Versailles," last Friday at the Beverly O'Neill Theater.

Louis had court musicians who played when he got up, when he presented himself at court, when he ate, when he reviewed his troops, when he did other kingly stuff, and when he went to bed. Musica Angelica's associate music director Gonzalo X. Ruiz constructed this program to illustrate a day in the life.

An offstage soprano intoned an a cappella chant, which set a 17th century mood on a darkened stage. Then a few musicians entered and played one of the Trios pour le coucher du Roy, LWV 35, by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), which accompanied Louis getting out of bed. The full ensemble then entered to play two movements from the first Suite de symphonies by Jean-Joseph Mouret (1682-1738): the Rondeau, familiar as the theme from the PBS series Masterpiece Theater, and the Vivement. The suite dates from 1729.
Gonzalo X. Ruiz.

Jean-Baptiste Lully.
Two short pieces by relatively minor composers, François-André Danican Philidor's (1652-1739) La Marche Royale (1679) and Menuet de Flore, from Michel-Richard DeLalande’s (1657-1726) Symphonies pour les soupers du Roy, followed, as first the king reviewed his troops and then strolled in the garden after lunch. Then it was time for Louis to say his prayers. La Sonnerie de Ste. Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris (1723) is an enchanting, hypnotic piece by Marin Marais (1656-1728), for me the highlight of this program. Violins and viola da gamba weave ever more intricate solos over a repetitive, monotonous continuo accompaniment. The evening's soprano, Molly Netter, ended the half with the long, difficult, and ultimately moving Seconde Leçon de Ténèbres (1714) by François Couperin (1668-1733).

Molly Netter.
I thought it was a bit of a stretch to include excerpts from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s (1683-1764) opera Les Indes Galantes on this program; the piece premiered in 1735, 20 years after Louis died. But it is a great work, one of the glories of the French Baroque, not often performed, and it was a novel pleasure to hear the four arias sung by Netter and the various instrumental excerpts played by the full ensemble vigorously conducted by Ruiz; the Air polonois was particularly dramatic and striking. The opera excerpts took up most of the second half, ended with a bang, and got a standing ovation.

Jean-Philippe Rameau.
Most of the audience seemed to think the concert was over at that point, as most of the musicians left the stage, but we still needed to put His Majesty back to bed. Marais, who had been Lully’s assistant at court, contributed another of those Trios pour le coucher du Roy, played by the few instrumentalists who remained, along with a short song of his called Les Voix Humaines (1701), sung by Netter, and then the stage grew dark as the soprano, now offstage, repeated her a cappella chant. It was effective mood-wise, but a bit of an anticlimax and confusing to those in the audience who hadn't checked their program.

Marin Marais.
Musica Angelica played, in ensembles large and small, with their usual verve and technical prowess. Viola da gamba player Justin Haynes-Pilon stood out for his dazzling musicianship. And soprano Netter was marvelous. She possesses a large, beautiful, gleaming voice without much vibrato, phrases with exquisite taste, and sings with charming expressiveness.

Ruiz is known as a distinguished practitioner of the Baroque oboe, but here he played guitar and drum, and was, to put it mildly, an enthusiastic conductor. He moves around a lot, throws his whole body into it, and seemingly conducts every note, sometimes to the point of distraction and veering dangerously close to the comic, but always with a great and sincere passion for the music.

François Couperin.
The program avoided the potential awkwardness in presenting so many short pieces by linking them with Ruiz’ spoken introductions and David Belkovski’s harpsichord improvisations; the musicians entered and exited without pause, creating a seamless flow to the evening. Since there were so many pieces, many of them with long and obscure French titles that could have used some explaining, so many dates, and so many major and minor composers, and Ruiz' comments were brief, this concert cried out for program notes; all we got were musicians' bios, texts, and translations.

Ruiz’ innovative concept featured mostly unfamiliar selections from the French Baroque, played as usual with consummate authentic style and virtuosity by the period instrument specialists of Musica Angelica.

It was good to be Louis, and good to be in the audience for this interesting, unique, and well-played concert.


Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, "24 Hours at Versailles"
Beverly O'Neill Theater, Long Beach, Friday, February 7 at 8 p.m.
Images: Versailles: Palace website; Louis XIV: Wikipedia; Gonzalo X. Ruiz: Boston University; Lully: Wikipedia; Marais: Wikipedia; Molly Netter: Bach Cantatas website; Couperin: Wikipedia; Rameau: Wikipedia.

No comments: