Friday, January 14, brought forth the inaugural concert of the Symphonie des Dragons, a wind band under the direction of the Argentine oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz, presenting a program entitled, “From the Court to the Stage: The Rise of the French Oboe Band” at the First Church Congregational in Cambridge, under the auspices of the Boston Early Music Festival.
The fifteen performers comprised Stephen Bard, Luke Conklin, Jeanine Krause, Debra Nagy, Kathryn Montoya, Kristin Olson, Priscilla Smith, Rie Thiesson, and Ruiz, on treble or tenor oboes or recorders, or traverso flute; Rachel Begley, Nathan Hegelson, Julia Marion, and Dominic Teresi on bassoons and recorders; Charlie Weaver on guitar or theorbo, and Benjamin Harms on percussion — the “or” meaning many of these expert musicians performed on more than one instrument — Montoya on oboes and recorders of many sizes. The group’s name is derived from the custom in 17th-century France of naming field bands of military regiments. The disposition of the group is closely modeled on the Douze Grands Hautbois (twelve great oboes) in Lully’s orchestra under Louis XIV.
Lully himself was an accomplished dancer, and as an almost impish reference, Ruiz himself danced through nearly the whole performance, at times stamping his heels in the Spanish manner à la Flamenco, and at others pointing his toes as in a French quadrille. Some would find this distracting; the players followed it as a mode of conducting, some imitating it. The audience loved it. If they could have danced, they would, but the church was packed, and this reviewer was seated “on stage” (the left side of the chancel), actually obliterating the view of much of the performance, needless to say.
The program began with the performers streaming in from the door marked, “Exit,” performing Lully’s “Les combattants” (from his opera, Alceste), a rousing parade, indeed, and the audience was immediately in the “Dragons’”s hands. Ruiz introduced each work with amusing remarks, beginning with a Suite, also chosen from Lully’s Alceste, comprising a dozen short movements. Not all were dance movements. There was a sea festival, a gift for the fishermen, a typical funeral march, a description of Pluto’s palace, the winds, the infernal festival, and the demons, all played with élan and incredible stylishness, particularly with respect to discrete ornamentation.
Continuing in the French tradition, we heard next Le Mariage de la Grosse Cathos, as Ruiz put it, “Fat Kate’s Wedding,” another suite in seven movements composed by André Danican Philador specifically for oboe band. This featured Debra Nagy as soloist on the rare, alto hautcontre d’haubois in A, together with Kathryn Montoya on sopranino recorder. Continuo was provided by Charlie Weaver (Theorbo) and Dominic Teresi (bassoon), as the concertino, and the others chimed in as the full tutti. Although mostly dance movements, the work provided opportunities for the soloists to excel in beautifully lyrical passages, again with stylishly invented ornamentation.
François Couperin’s La Steinquerque, referring to the Battle of Steenkerque in 1692, in which the French won against an army of English-Scottish-Dutch-Germans under Prince William of Orange. This is one of the composer’s Concerts royaux, written for flute (recorder), violin and/or oboe, and continuo, that is, a trio-sonata. In the arrangement performed here, it more resembled a concerto, with the trio-sonata texture being the soloist, and the rest of the ensemble as the tutti, as in the previous work by Philador. In this case, the arrangement featured various soloists in the nine different movements, notably Montoya again on the sopranino recorder in the second of three “Lentement” movements. These, and one marked, “Gravement,” gave the oboists five of nine movements to do what they like to do best: play long, lyrical, arching phrases. They made the most of them, soaring with ravishing beauty
After intermission the “band” moved to England, more or less. The nine movements of Purcell’s “Musick” for Congreve’s comedy, The Double Dealer (1693), gave the band a good chance to show off the expertise of its soloists. Again, Montoya shone brightly in the Hornpipes with her high recorder, and Ruiz allowed himself an exhilarating “Aire” with continuo only. In this piece particularly, many textures were displayed, from chamber to tutti, as were many of the individual soloists, all of the best playing imaginable.
Handel’s Trio Sonata in g minor, op. 2, no. 5 was originally written for two violins and continuo. Ruiz chose this as a vehicle for himself and Montoya, together with Weaver playing theorbo and Teresi bassoon, for an absolutely breathtaking performance of the four movements, in slow-fast, slow-fast formation. The contrast in texture was welcome. The difficulties encountered precluded much dancing on Ruiz’s part, but all were surmounted magnificently. The last “Allegro” movement, with its intricate contrapuntal activity, was a joy.
The final six-movement suite of dances from Handel’s Rodrigo, first performed in Florence, Italy, in 1707, provided an exuberant finale for the band as a whole, although in the “Matelots” (Sailors) contrasting textures of concertino and tutti were again offered to great effect. The ensemble, as they took their bows, looked absolutely ecstatic, as well they should after such an ebullient and expert performance. The audience was equally enthusiastic in their applause, well-deserved. In talking to one of the performers afterwards, this exuberance spilled over: the ensemble was thrilled that they, as such skillful performers, had been gathered together for this purpose — perhaps the only such wind band now extant in the world — and given this chance to show what they can do with this repertoire. They are showing it again as I write, at the Morgan Library in New York. One can only wish them well as they continue.