Leclair provides the highlights in Third Coast Baroque’s French fête

Mon Nov 18, 2019 at 3:43 pm

By Landon Hegedus

Third Coast Baroque performed Sunday afternoon at Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville. Photo: Charles Osgood

At the midpoint of their fourth season, the imaginative period ensemble Third Coast Baroque gave its roster of excellent singers a weekend off, presenting instead an all-instrumental program entitled “The French Connection.” 

TCB capped the three-concert run of the program Sunday afternoon at Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville, led by artistic director and co-founder Rubén Dubrovsky.

Dubrovsky traded his baton for the colascione, a long-necked relative of the lute for this program.  Joining the core ensemble of local musicians performing on violin, viola da gamba, harpsichord, and theorbo were two out-of-towners–flutist Charles Brink and oboe/recorder player Kathryn Montoya, both making their TCB debuts.

In his opening comments, Dubrovsky remarked that French music is something of a black sheep of European baroque forms. He observed that Italian music is privileged by audiences in part for its memorable melodies, whereas, “if you remember one tune of what we have played today, congratulations!” Rather, the soul of French baroque music lies in the dance forms that were canonized in the courts of 17th-century French nobility.

Fittingly, the tentpoles of this program were a pair of dance suites for chamber ensemble, leading with “La Françoise,” the first of four suites from François Couperin’s cosmopolitan survey of late baroque idiom, Les Nations.

The first suite yielded a few notable moments – especially in fine duet passages from the guest wind players in the Allemande. Yet the ensemble’s overall performance was somewhat hesitant, especially in the halted transitions between themes in the Italianate sonata of the first movement. When the whole ensemble played together, the lower continuo instruments often overbalanced the breezy treble voices, saddling the piece with a weight that felt more burdensome than characteristic. 

Jean-Marie Leclair

If the Couperin left something to be desired, Jean-Marie Leclair’s Dieuxième récréation de musique was nothing short of magnificent. Here, warm and spirited contributions from the winds filled out the middle of the cohesive, nuanced ensemble sound. Dubrovsky led his band skillfully through the mercurial mood changes of the extensive Chaconne, anchoring the character of each new variation with the resonant bass sound from his colascione. Toes were tapping and sparks flew in the Tambourin, the suite’s fiery closer, which found violins and winds trading rippling duet lines with tossed-off ease.

Two shorter works between the suites gave solo turns to the ensemble’s continuo players. Harpsichordist Andrew Rosenblum delivered a technically pristine if otherwise prosaic reading of the muscular “Jupiter” from Antoine Forqueray’s Fifth Harpsichord Suite, while gambist Anna Steinhoff admirably navigated the elegant Chaconne from Marin Marais’s Suite No. 2 in D Major with poise.

Opening the program was a set of three movements from various operas by Rameau, arranged for two violins by Joseph-Barnabé Sant-Sévin. Violinists Martin Davids and Pauline Kempf performed these miniatures with uncommon synchronicity of tempo and homogeneity of timbre, breathing a lilting spirit into tunes from Dardanus and Pygmalion. Particularly effective was the Air de sauvage from Les Indes galant, in which the spare instrumentation revealed a clockwork intricacy of Rameau’s counterpoint often buried by a fully realized continuo.

Projected behind the musicians through the afternoon were subtly animated graphics created and curated by Meriem Bahri (known professionally as WERIEM). The color-blocked, unadorned renderings of dancing figures and Rococo motifs were perhaps more evocative of Matisse than Rigaud, but were nonetheless an unobtrusive and welcome visual supplement to the afternoon’s lovely music. 

Third Coast Baroque’s season concludes with a Vivaldi program April 17 and 18, 2020. thirdcoastbaroque.org

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