IN: Reviews

Music with Dance for the Sun King


David Griesinger photo

The International Baroque Institute at Longy (IBIL) brings an international cast to the Longy School in Cambridge at the end of July for eight days of intensive chamber music and dance. The Institute is not as well known as it should be to the general public, but for eighteen years it has been the spark for countless careers. The faculty, from all over the world, are stars in their field: Phoebe Carrai, cello and co-director, and Ken Pierce, historical dance, are Longy faculty. Gonzalo Ruiz, oboe, Arthur Haas, harpsichord, and Sarah Cunningham, viola da gamba, are part of the Historical Performance faculty at Julliard. Ricard Bordas, countertenor, comes to us from Barcelona and South Carolina. Manfredo Kramer, violin, comes from Germany. Jed Wentz, traverso, and Paul Leenhouts, recorder and co-director, hail from Amsterdam. They are joined at the institute by guest artists and participants from the United States, Mexico, Europe, and Israel.

For musicians curious about earlier musical forms, the experience of working intensively at a very high level with the faculty and other musicians at IBIL can be life-changing. Arthur Haas said his experience brought him into his current position as one of America’s foremost harpsichordists and teachers. He looks forward enormously to teaching and playing every year at IBIL, as do the participants who flock to Cambridge for the same privilege.

This year’s theme was French music from the time of the Sun King, Louis XIV. The grand master of the style was Jean-Baptiste Lully, a largely self-taught musician who came to the court of Louis XIV as a dancer and caught the eye of the king. He quickly rose to the post of director of the Paris Opera, among many other duties. He greatly influenced all the composers that followed and was deeply mourned when he prematurely died – more of this later.

A typical piece from the period is a suite of dances – such as allemande, curante, sarabande, and gigue. A wonderful aspect of IBIL is that dance is included in their performances, and you can see how the music relates to the choreography. How else can you understand them both? On Friday evening, July 29, Ken Pierce demonstrated his art to Lully’s “Entrée de Apollon,” (from  Le Triomphe de l’Amour) dressed in the sun costume of Apollo. The choreography was precise, florid, yet facially impassive — as befits the Lord of the Sun and the King of France. Pierce then demonstrated the comic flip side of dance in Lully’s Chaconne d’Arlequin – where gestures and facial expressions were over the top – and very funny.

For the most part the music is upbeat. How can one be anything but happy in the court of the Sun King? And there is sensuality too. The sarabande was a highly erotic dance before the French court tamed it. This aspect of the dance was evident in all its glory in the sarabande section of Couperin’s “Treziéme Concert á 2 Instruments á l’Unisson, played on Friday evening by Cunningham and Beiliang Zhu. The two gambas twisted around each other, embracing like lovers.

There are laments, too. Even the king cannot cure the pains of love or the sadness of death. Cunningham and Beiliang Zhu played Tombeau pour Monsieur de Lully on Friday evening with exquisite sadness – and Coouperin’s Concert en forme d’Apothéose á la Mémoire de l’Incomparable M. de Lully was equally moving as played on Saturday by Tatiana Daubek and Emily Dahl, violin, Barbara Hopkins and Paul Mattick, traverso, Kristen Olson & Lindsey Reymore, oboe, Elizabeth Hardy Bassoon, James Williamson, viola da gamba, and Robert Warner, harpsichord. But one of the outstanding features of the IBIL concerts was the fun the musicians were having while playing. You could see it in their faces – not just concentration, but smiles, grimaces, suppressed laughter were often evident. You can see why this music is addictive.

Speaking of fun, one of the many highlights for me from the Friday afternoon concert was Folie à Six played by “Les Viols d’IBIL” an entirely improvised piece for six bass viola de gamba. Sarah Cunningham, who lead the group, explained that improvisation was always part of the training of a Baroque musician, but has been sadly neglected in modern performances. The folly of perfection that dominates modern musicianship discourages improvisation, which, according to Cunningham, is more of a sporting event. “You never know how it is going to come out.”

Folie à Six was a passacaglia, the key and sequence of which had been agreed upon beforehand – a bit like 12-bar blues. The piece started with a solo theme in the right-most gamba. The theme then passed from right to left. After playing the theme, each musician started improvising above it. The theme finally reached Cunningham, who prettied it up with all kinds of ornaments and flourishes, and then they all continued improvising – but somehow the theme was never lost. It sounds like a recipe for chaos – but it was not. The players were imbued in the style, and harmonies and counterpoint built upon each other. The audience erupted in cheering applause. If the performance was a sporting event, I would say the score was 6-0. The performers were Niccolo Seligman, James Williamson, Hannah Davidson, Rafael Sanchez Guevara, Nathan Bantrager, and Cunningham.

The final concert on Saturday was a celebration and a party, with food and drink at intermission provided by a host of local eateries. Most of the chairs on the Pickman floor were removed to make place for the IBIL Orchestra. The stage was reserved for smaller ensembles and dance. The orchestra filled the floor of the hall: six traverso players, four oboes, nine violins, two violas, ten cellos (sometimes playing viol), three harpsichord players, four gambas, recorder, violone, double bass, and percussion. The huge orchestra is a testament to the importance of the Institute to young players from all over the world. They played with gusto.

The IBIL faculty took turns conducting the group. Carrai and Kraemer conducted together from their first chairs. Wentz, Haas, and Ruiz conducted from the podium with different styles. The orchestra watched them like hawks – reveling in the ensemble. Wentz’s conducting was particularly interesting. He has been studying treatises to understand how conductors of the period worked. He conducts with a rolled-up piece of white paper, or tactus, moved up and down vertically with a broad motion. The downbeat is indicated by an abrupt lowering of the paper. Intermediate beats are marked with small up and down movements, and the penultimate beat is a strong upward motion upward to prepare for the downbeat. He is convinced that this was the normal style of conducting – and demonstrated that it is very effective.

A link to a very short video of Jed’s conducting is here.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

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