I don’t want you to think that all we do here at Amherst is
take classes in the daytime and complain about them at night.
Every night there’s some kind of performance, with opportunities
for playing or singing or dancing before and after.
Yesterday it was a concert by the faculty of the Baroque
Academy. It was billed as Welcome to the Ball: An Evening
of Dance Music from Versailles.
I’m sure everything on the program had come kind of
relationship to dance music, but for some things the relationship
seemed pretty misty to me. I suspect that when Charpentier called
something a sonata he meant that the performers should take the
dances in the movement titles as performance instructions, but not
that a dancer should necessarily be able to dance the dance to the
movement. And certainly a vocal cantata about the parting of the
Red Sea isn’t intended to be danced to.
The playing was uniformly elegant and professional. There were
a few cases where I thought the mood could have been captured
better. For instance, three viol players plus continuo seemed
quite solemn when playing a movement called “Caprice” from a
Marais Suite. The person sitting next to me pointed out that
caprice doesn’t necessarily mean capricious or playful — it means
“what you feel like” and maybe the viol players were feeling
Notes on the Continuo
Ever since I heard a baroque wind band perform with a continuo
consisting of both Bernard Fourtet on serpent and
Marilyn Boenau on baroque bassoon, I’ve felt that Baroque chamber
music should be performed with a louder continuo than the usual
harpsichord/cello or viol configuration. The Boston Early Music Festival opera
orchestra always uses multiple configurations of bowed and plucked
strings, but as a wind player I never find that as interesting as
if they used serpents and bassoons too.
The performers last night were doing the right kind of
experiments with that, and in the final number with an ensemble
consisting of two violins, two oboes, two recorders, two baroque
flutes, cello, viol, baroque bassoon, and two harpsichords, they
achieved a wonderful variety of very supportive continuo
I suspect with more rehearsal time, they could have carried
that over to all the other pieces, too. But for the Cantata about
the parting of the Red Sea, they decided to use the cello/bassoon
configuration throughout, and I felt it was an obtrusively
unblended sound that didn’t work well with Julianne Baird’s limpid
soprano vocal lines.
Of the instrumental pieces, the most remarked on one was the
piece for two harpsichords by a later, more obscure Couperin
(Armand Louis (1727-1789). A long, drawn-out cadence in the
middle seemed to put Peter Sykes to sleep until Arthur Haas leaned
over to poke him so that he could wake up and play the bravura
fireworks of the ending. I found myself wondering how fast the
allegro of that Symphonie must be if that was the