Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Exercises in Artifice


Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending another concert in Chicago's very own Music of the Baroque series. Director Jane Glover is such a treasure to the musical life of this town. Her programming ideas are brilliantly achieved and highly effective. This concert was entitled, The French Connection, and focused on French music from the time of the Sun King, Louis XIV. The centerpieces of the concert were a pair of highly ornate settings of the Te Deum, an apparent mainstay of every court performance for the King. As the director expressed, one never knew if the pieces were a Te Deum or a Te Rex (much high-browed giggling from audience).

That was actually the first good thing about this concert - she had a microphone and gave us her impressions about the concert that was to be performed. She gave brief notes on each of the four pieces and let us in on her ideas on how the various pieces fit together. She came to the conclusion that the compositions selected had an abundance of dance rhythms, and it didn't matter if the occasion were in homage ( as in the case of Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin), in the theater (as in the case of Mozart's music to Les Petits Riens) or in the church. Each incorporated that feeling and beat of French dance. I appreciated being given that little bit of information that allowed me to understand where the conductor was coming from. And it is always a pleasure hearing British intellectuals speak.

Now to the music and the title of this post. The two-and-a-half hour concert began with the complete incidental music that Mozart wrote for a long-forgotten ballet that was supposed to follow a long-forgotten opera. Apparently Mozart, being a poor businessman, received no payment for his work. The music on the whole is of the less-inspired variety from Mozart. Of the thirteen pieces, I enjoyed the 'Gavotte gracieuse' and the final Gavotte, at least the first section of that segment. I enjoyed Glover's performance of the work, however, and her respect for the pause. Too many conductors rush through the ends of movements and straight into the next one. Although many of the thirteen movements were short, she allowed them to linger in the air a little, which I appreciated. The orchestra was a slight 31 players by Romantic standards, but were certainly sufficient for the banal music being played.

The next piece was a setting of the Te Deum by Michel Richard Delalande, a piece for orchestra, with one trumpet, chorus, and five soloists. It is a heavily filigreed piece of music as one would expect in Versailles. The opening flourish set a very glorious tone, but the music seemed to grind to a halt when the soloists came in, as if they could not keep the pace of the instruments. It made the work seem really heavy to me. I enjoyed the various couplings of the soloists throughout the piece, but the quick alternation between sections, from solo baritone, to full chorus, to countertenor with sopranos, to tenor with solo violin, all in quick succession, made the work seem really haphazard, the same feeling I get from the second section of Handel's Messiah.  You have no time to enjoy the aural combination you just heard before you are assaulted by a new one. One the whole, the soloists were good. I thought Sarah Gartshore had a wonderful voice that was wasted on such empty pomp. I didn't like Amy Conn's muddled Latin pronunciation, or that the program book said Karim Sulayman was a tenor when he was obviously singing in the countertenor range. I liked that the baritone was also a professor of neurological surgery at Loyola University. It shows that music was for everyone, a sentiment I am sure Louis would not have approved of.

The "famous" Te Deum was next, H.146 of Marc-Antoine Charpentier. The only thing I can say about this piece is that it takes the excesses of the Delalande and exacerbates them. There are now six soloists, with the tiniest slivers of roles, mostly in soloistic work, highly uninteresting. The changes in mood, tempo, scoring are ever-present and you sort of feel like you are on a ride where you are bound to get sick. You get the prominent impression that this piece of music is all style and no substance. Actually, all the pieces so far on this concert suffered from the same condition. Although these liturgical works were ostensibly composed to honor the Lord, they seem more appropriate to the stroking of a monarch's ego. That would explain the endless trills and numerous soloists.

Artifice isn't all bad however, as the music of Ravel can attest. Le Tombeau de Couperin is a beautifully scored and sculpted piece of music, each of the four movements finer than the previous one. It was a pleasure to have such a change in the aural landscape, and such a welcome change. Ravel has to be one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, but his music does not stand outside the title of artifice. Which is interesting because this work, this homage, was dedicated to his friends who died in the Great War. There is rarely anything to complain about in works of Ravel, and the playing was executed beautifully, a nice surprise from the Music of the Baroque orchestra.

The concert was long, but it was fun to hear works that are not performed often. In fact, all four compositions were premieres for the orchestra. The Mozart gets me ready for my next Music of the Baroque concert which is all Mozart. I can't wait. I should write a composition called Te Mozart.

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