Flourishing Art

March 31, 2010

Les Arts Florissants in Concert at the Leipzig Gewandhaus

The French troupe Les Arts Florissants have just left us. By us, I mean Brooklyn and anybody who could get there to hear and see their wonders. Why can’t they forsake Paris and just stay around here? What does Paris have that …? Never mind.

I’m one of those who have followed them for years. And to follow is to admire. I saw the now-historic production of Lully’s Atys that made them international stars, and if it didn’t change my whole life it certainly changed that not inconsiderable part of it that deals with the French Baroque and its tributaries. Lully, I had learned somewhere in an expensive education, was pretty thin stuff. Not as they delivered it, even as seen in this ancient sound-challenged video:

When I was in music school, a rumor went round that a guy from a few years before had run off to Paris and was intending to tell the French how to perform and appreciate music that they had themselves long neglected. There was lots of chuckling that Bill Christie was heading for a tumble. I, being too ignorant even to have an opinion, just heard all this and stored it away. I had heard a very fine harpsichord recital by him when he came back to collect a doctorate, but a recital does not a whole new operatic culture make.

But his Atys years later was revelatory, as have been many of the things I’ve seen and heard from his gang since. They did at least the second Dido and Aeneas that they’ve done in New York on this last visit, and this clip from the most famous bit should remove any doubt that modern production values and Baroque musical drama can coexist fruitfully:

We see Dido die and feel as centuries have felt at her fate, while hearing some of the most sublime music ever devised.

Why can’t more opera companies be so innovative — while also being not so much preservative as revivifying? I went to a rehearsal of their Fairy Queen last Friday. Mind you, this rehearsal was four days after the first performance of the run. Can you imagine the Met doing such a thing? Well, they simply opened the doors, charged people $20 to watch a 45-minute spot-check (i.e., the conductor giving “notes”) of how the production was going, with some commentary addressed to the audience. I, for one, did not feel in the least cheated by the brevity or the opportunism of the affair (photo below of the orchestra during the event). It was really quite wonderful, and one felt connected with an important enterprise. This is what I call intelligent marketing. Besides, at the “Baroque Cabaret” that they gave the weekend before, a BAM official had said that “When we do an opera series, we lose more money by intermission than we do in our whole theater season.” Glad to help, ma’am.

Great composers don’t always “get” other great composers. Berlioz, in his idolatry of Gluck, devalued both Lully and Handel in irrelevant comparisons to the great reformer. Stravinsky, despite a semi-comprehending admiration for Gesualdo and Pergolesi (whom his imagination tended to recast in his own image), seemed unable to imagine earlier styles of music on their own terms and famously dismissed Vivaldi by saying that “he didn’t compose 400 concertos; he composed one concerto 400 times.” Given the skewed view that once existed of the Italian Baroque and how its music had originally been played, it’s understandable that this music — which is above all “performer’s music” not “analyst’s music” — didn’t reveal its extravagant charms. The charms were not those of the Urtext generation. Goodness knows that the zillions of vinyl representations of Vivaldi’s music that Nonesuch issued in the 1960s, with performances in which provincial German orchestras sawed away rather mechanically, may not go far to explain the dizzying rise in popularity that the music of “The Red Priest” nevertheless enjoyed.

Stravinsky probably didn’t know about the many written accounts of performances of that repertory when it was new. These are replete with descriptions of passionate playing of a sort that we don’t see enough of these days, with audience reactions that often involved even the loss of emotional control. This was not the scenario at Vivaldi performances of, say, the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra — or, for that matter, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center — during the century just past.

Thus it was with a shock of recognition that I first heard the Sicilian violinist Fabio Biondi’s group Europa Galante a dozen years ago. It was more a recognition of an ideal that I had been taught in music-history seminars than of anything I had previously heard from orchestras. They have since recorded hours of Vivaldi (as well as of much other 17th- and 18th-century music proceeding from Italianate models), and I challenge anybody to miss the great individuality of content and character in these finely-limned virtuoso performances. The prolific Venetian certainly didn’t write 400 of these:

or these:

The succeeding movements of this concerto are on YouTube as well.

Europa Galante, happily, has not neglected to extend the passion to vocal music:

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