“The French Baroque Big Band,” Andover Chamber Music’s December 2nd concert at First Church in Cambridge, was curiously billed on their website as follows: “Your favorite tradition to usher in the holidays! With glorious Baroque concertos performed without a conductor in the intimate church settings for which they were composed.” This summary, along with director Julie Scolnik’s introductory remarks, which again stressed Christmas festivity and seemingly natural choices of orchestration (one on a part! no conductor!), fostered the contradictory suspicion that I, as a Baroque aficionado, was not in fact the target audience for this program. By her own assertion and folksy message in the program booklet, Scolnik has a devoted following in her hometown of Andover. Informality and the cultivation of performer-audience relationships are both laudable goals, but unfortunately I, an outsider who does not necessarily equate Baroque music with Christmas, was disappointed in my hope for a tasteful and savvy rendition of Couperin, Rameau, and their countrymen. Overall, the performers seemed to have widely varying ideas of style and aesthetic, which, combined with the bathtub acoustic of FCC, resulted in a program that was not quite able to make up with energy what it lacked in cohesion and flair.
The concert began promisingly enough with one of Jean-Marie Leclair’s many short and charming violin duos. Violinists Nurit Pacht and Irina Muresanu exhibited dramatically different approaches, which bothered me less here than it would later in the program. I was unsurprised to read in her bio that Pacht is currently pursuing a degree through Juilliard’s Historical Performance Program, for everything about her articulation and form (she was the only string player who “choked up” on her bow-hold; all players performed on modern instruments) showed the results of Baroque performance practice study. And, though I admit a bias towards this approach, I consistently found Pacht’s playing the clearest, most expressive, and most engaging throughout the concert. She had the primary part in the Leclair duo and managed through gestural intensity and edgy, often percussive, articulation in the fast movements to gain the upper hand in the battle against the wash of sound generated by the sanctuary’s large dome. I was only able fully to appreciate the masterful dynamic changes and the whispery precision of her ornamentation in the Gavotte: Andante Grazioso in retrospect, after hearing the larger ensemble pieces. Muresanu was a clear, precise, and coordinated duettist as well; the beginning turned out to be a high point of the evening.
A selection called Pieces en Concert for cello & strings by François Couperin followed, with cellist Jan Muller-Szeraws as the erstwhile soloist. One of my seatmates commented afterwards that the arranger should have been credited; indeed, some follow-up research revealed the suite as a frequently played arrangement by Paul Bazelaire of one of Couperin’s harpsichord pieces. This went part of the way to explain my confusion while listening to the piece: why, for instance, the not-very-soloistic cello part often seemed lost in the thick surrounding counterpoint. Muller-Szeraws’ sustained, legato bowing style and wide vibrato was unfortunately not the most effective in this situation; the buildup of sound thus produced often resulted in unwieldy and sluggish transitions. The third movement, “La Tromba: Gaiement,” which was clearly meant to be sparkling and vivacious, was just as clearly and painfully lacking in this these qualities: energetic cadences at the ends of sections took too long to dissipate, muddying the quiet restarts that followed. Transitions between movements, however, when given the right amount of time, proved to be ethereal and effective. Out of the accompanying quartet, my ear was again immediately drawn to Pacht on her entrances; she also had the advantage of the most piercing register. Elizabeth Foulser, on bass, played aggressively and with much vibrato — not quite the unobtrusive but firm foundation that might have better suited the ensemble. The fourth movement, “Plainte: Douloureusement,” was perhaps most conducive to Muller-Szeraws’ operatic style; accompaniment alternated between the low and high strings with bass pizzicato, and both groups balanced nicely in the thinner and more manageable texture. The overall effect of the suite was one of vaguely shaped characteristic movements, mostly pleasant but not living up to Couperin’s dramatic names. It certainly looked like the players were going at the final “Air de Diable” with gusto, but once again echoes took away any edginess before it was able to reach the audience’s ears.
The first half concluded with a flute concerto by Michel Blavet, featuring Scolnik. The plinking of the harpsichord, performed by Andrus Madsen, was a welcome addition, and the heft of Foulser’s bass worked well this time to balance the preponderance of treble instruments. The piece was charming but forgettable, nevertheless featuring a fine ensemble between the players, effective dynamic and character contrasts from the violins, who attacked the ripieno sections with great energy, and some instances of sensitive dialogue between flute and violins. Scolnik displayed a serene endurance during the perpetual-motion last movement, which also featured some awkward cadenzas over too-present pedal point drones.
Madsen appeared after intermission in two short solo harpsichord works by Couperin and Jacques Duphly. The Duphly was the more engaging, with wistful changes of harmony and varied textures, while the Couperin seemed to feature the sort of pop-style chord progressions that infiltrate some light Baroque keyboard works. Madsen’s use of rubato was unevenly effective (much nuance lost again, no doubt, to the acoustic), and did not always seem to mesh with his genial head-bobbing.
Next came a piece by Rameau featuring (I was happy to see) Pacht again on violin along with Scolnik. She and Muller-Szeraws communicated a lot in the first movement, which brought to the forefront the glaring difference in their methods of attack — Pacht’s being incisive, Muller-Szeraws’ lush. Once settled on long suspensions, however, they seemed to find a common sound and let their dissonances strain in a satisfying way. However, the highlight of the program, hands-down, was the second movement, La Cupis, which was mainly comprised of an extended dialogue between violin and flute in which floating, uninflected lines alternated with intuitive-sounding flourishes. The two voices aligned at cadences in ways that always felt at once unexpected and graceful. The wistfulness of the melodic voices was nicely supported by Madsen puttering along underneath, with a couple flourishes of his own.
Next came — in the interest of full disclosure — a trivia quiz in which I won two CDs, featuring Jean-Baptiste Lully (who was not in fact on the program) and the ironic manner of his alleged death from gangrene after bringing his fearsome time-keeping orchestra-master stick down on his foot. Trivia quizzes are apparently another quirky tradition of concert-going Andover residents that transferred a bit awkwardly to Cambridge.
The penultimate piece on the program featured Muresanu on violin in the blatantly concerto-like (in contrast to the previous chamber-like “concertos”) Violin Concerto op. 10, no. 3 by Leclair. I have appreciated Muresanu’s flashy and polished playing in the past — most recently in a stellar performance of the Prokofiev Violin Concerto with the Boston Conservatory Orchestra. That said, I found her performance of the Leclair concerto to represent the worst turn that Baroque virtuosity can take. Angled towards the audience and away from the rest of the players, with a facial expression of intense fierceness, she hammered out every single one of the concerto’s multitude of notes with equal and exaggerated bravura, resulting in a performance that was pedantic in its technical flawlessness. Not a trace of subtlety, wit, or risk was to be found. It seemed to be the sort of playing designed to win a competition rather than to charm an audience of chamber-music lovers. Leclair: snobby show-off violin virtuoso or tastefully understated duettist? The jury is out.
The last piece was printed in the program as “Surprise encore – don’t run away!” and announced as Vivaldi’s Double Violin Concerto. Pacht and Muresanu each camped up her part in her own style, making for a very entertaining five minutes. It may have been my imagination, but it seemed like the two violinists were battling it out, reveling in the opportunity to one-up each other. The collaborative side of chamber music certainly seemed to have its limits in this band.
Zoe Kemmerling is a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory and a freelance violist, Baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor.