L’Académie is a relatively new Baroque chamber group in Boston, established during the 2008-2009 season by harpsichordist and general director Leslie Kwan and tenor, conductor, and music director Michael Barrett. In January they announced that Ton Koopman, conductor of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (and recently of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), would be their Artistic Advisor. Their concerts this season, all in the Marsh Chapel at Boston University, are diverse but thematic, full of engaging and rarely heard music. In December “Three Madmen,” presented four cantatas by Charpentier and Clérambault for three high tenors; “Chasing Corelli,” coming on April 17th, will focus on concerti grossi by van Wassenaer (formerly attributed to Pergolesi), Locatelli, and Handel, as well as Corelli.
The concert I heard on Saturday, February 13th, entitled “(S)he’s Just Not That into You: Love Songs (and More) from Seventeenth-Century England and Italy,” in spite of the ungrateful title, was a fine example of their extraordinary singing and playing, with the added fillip of delightful dramatic presentation that wove the concert into one well-proportioned tapestry. The two-dozen vocal works were all from the Treasury of Musick (1669), three volumes compiled by John Playford containing music chiefly by Henry and William Lawes, but also by others (Nicholas Lanier, John Goodgroome, Charles Coleman, John Wilson, and William Caesar on this occasion). Most of these were for solo voice and continuo (originally to be “sung to the theorbo-lute or basse-viol”).Though reprinted and digitized, the Treasury of Musick has never been made into a modern edition, perhaps because performers such as these, experienced in the tradition, can sing and play from the original, although the harpsichordist must improvise upon the bass line, and the singers have to hustle to read all the verses as they sing. One almost never hears so many of these at once in concert, perhaps because without the special brand of imagination smartly exhibited by L’Académie, they would seem too trite alongside other works singers like to sing. Michael Barrett had written an often witty long poem about the trials and tribulations of wooing and winning (or not), that was read between pieces by Graham Wright as the performers moved into position. Thus the singers all had a context in which to play their roles.
The seven instrumental works, performed before and after each group of four songs, derived from “the first generation of published compositions from Italy for solo instrument and basso continuo,” and included sonatas (i.e. suites in those days) and dances by Dario Castello (ca. 1590-ca. 1658), Biagio Marini (1594-1663), Andrea Falconieri (1585/6-1656)), and Giovanni Paolo Cima (ca. 1570-1622). They were aptly performed by violinist Marika Holmqvist, cellist Colleen McGary-Smith, and harpsichordist Leslie Kwan. The two Brandos, by Falconieri, enjoyed the addition of a tambourine lightly tapped (and almost danced) by Michael Barrett.
Soprano Brenna Wells, mezzo-soprano Emily Marvosh, low tenor Michael Barrett, and high baritone Sumner Thompson all sang individually with clear, vibrato-less voices, excellent diction, and dramatic expression. Slight problems of balance arose when two or more sang together due mainly to their different voice types (Fächer). Similar problems of balance occurred between the violin and cello. The violoncello, or “bass violin” of the time might indeed have had strings of wire instead of gut—in fact, Playford himself wrote five years earlier (in 1664) that they “sounded ‘much better and lowder than the common Gut strings.” Here “lowder” was the problem when overtaking rather than supporting the beautiful sweet, appropriately sighing tones of Marika Holmqvist’s small violin. But Colleen McGary-Smith too played with great skill and style, not to mention stamina throughout the evening. Leslie Kwan, gently in control of the character and tempo of the event, played unobtrusively but richly on a double manual harpsichord patterned after a 17th-century French instrument, made by Boston’s Tom Pixton in 1979, the same year as this one owned by harpsichordist and organist Peter Sykes (faculty, Boston University). Pixton’s instruments were known for their “remarkable projection” (so said Howard Schott in Early Music, Oct., 1981), a big advantage in the resonant Marsh Chapel. All of the performers made good ad hoc use of stylish ornamentation. Particularly demonstrative of the beauty of Baroque “Affekt” was “La suave melodia/su corrente,” by Falconieri.
‘T’ain’t easy to start a new Baroque group in Boston, which is so heavily populated with them. But L’Académie has a lot going for itself: excellent, dedicated performers who are stylistically experienced, intelligent research and programming, and best of all, a sense of humor. As far as I could tell from the youngish audience, they have quite a following already.