Elisabeth Claude Jacquet de la Guerre’s music was revealed in its exquisite beauty and variety in a concert presented by the Women and Music Project of Brandeis University last night at Rapaporte Treasure Hall. The main work on the program was the cantata L’Isle de Delos, but also featured were unaccompanied harpsichord preludes, a trio sonata, and violin sonata. These were performed with great sensitivity by Vivian Montgomery (harpsichord), Janet Youngdahl (soprano), Dana Maiben (violin), Sarah Paysnick (baroque flute), and Sarah Mead (viola da gamba). Youngdahl and Montgomery have a long history as members of an ensemble, Cecilia’s Circle (which recorded Jacquet’s Cantata Judith), but unfortunately geographic constraints (Youngdahl lives in Alberta) currently limit the collaboration of these musicians.
Montgomery began with an unmeasured Prelude in a minor (1687). Having no notated rhythms, the music gives the performer freedom, which Montgomery seized. The gestures flowed like harmonious rivulets, building into swift cascades, and even torrents. Grabbing the listeners with its ebb and flow, the piece carried us on a short but tumultuous journey. Next was a Trio Sonata in D Major (1707). Flute and violin were paired as the upper instruments, and the crisp timbre of the violin contrasted with the warm and mellifluous tone of the flute as they exchanged ideas and motives. Jacquet’s music is prone to twists and turns; sometime, approaching a cadence, one feels the building momentum, but then there is a sudden harmonic twist that delays the arrival of the goal. This results in a sense of playfulness and energy, the whimsy that Montgomery mentioned in her commentary. The driving momentum often is akin to careening or cavorting. Spritely dance figures and unexpected cross- rhythms fill the music with energy and demand perfection in ensemble to bring it off; and this took place with complete confidence.
Violinist Dana Maiben was featured in a Sonata in G major (1707). Maiben’s playing has reached a remarkable artistic apex of style, precision, and energy in execution. Or maybe it has been there all along, but if so I have to kick myself for not having heard her sooner. (I did know about her wonderful recording of Sonatas by Francesca Le Brun). Maiben offered sensitivity to the style, a language full of drama and abrupt changes of mood, a larger-than-life emotional intensity yet interpreted in a nuanced performance. The range of articulations produced in the bowing was part of this, resulting in a vivid speech-like communication, and complete understanding of the poetry of the music. Sarah Mead (viola da gamba) did not always match Maiben’s expressive range of articulation, but there was often warmth in her melodic lines.
The largest work of the program was the cantata, L’Isle de Delos, which concluded the evening. This cantata portrayed a pastoral scene of a beautiful, peaceful island. The movements are illustrations — frolicking shepherds and nymphs, flowing streams and tranquil fields, rustling leaves, singing nightingales, and, finally, a walk with Wisdom (anthropomorphized). Well, what about that island? It doesn’t really matter where it is, or who is the narrator. It is all a lovely meditation.
Janet Youngdahl, soprano, was the featured performer. She had some occasional hesitancy and momentary lapses; upon inquiry, I learned that she had had to cancel two performances over the weekend, due to vocal strain in rehearsal on Friday. Certainly there were weak moments, but also some brilliant and inspired singing. For instance, her “Reign, brilliant Flora!” was a passionate, powerful imperative command. Preceding that passage was a Muzette, evoking the innocence of the shepherds by suggesting bagpipes, and a rustic feel through rolled chords on the viola da gamba. The Air (song) that evoked the flowing water (“our flowing time is as peaceful as the stream”) was placed in a very high register, precarious for the ensemble, but they negotiated it securely. The final Air maintained a rhapsodic freshness, a feeling of spontaneity, even in a contained formal structure.
The program was beautifully balanced and remarkably executed. Jacquet de la Guere is one of those many, many important composers who did not find her way into my music history textbooks back when I took the survey course 30-plus years ago. Fortunately now, that is no longer the case, and we listeners are so fortunate for the exciting change that has happened in the past decades. Jacquet is now recognized as a central figure in French music of the 17th-18th centuries. As Montgomery observed, her music is distinct in its inventiveness, whimsy, and style of ornamentation. She suggested that the music offers something distinctly female in its style. Of course, that’s a matter of opinion, but what is true is the trajectory — being such a widely recognized success in her lifetime, then being erased completely from music history and only to be rediscovered with the advent of the women’s movement in the 1980s — that is an experience specific to women composers.
While the RapaporteTreasure Hall (in the library on the Brandeis campus) is a nice size with good acoustic, the stage area was poorly lit, and sight lines are poor (could some platforms be provided to offer a real stage?)
Finally, here’s a disclaimer (which I wrote before hearing the concert). This concert is sponsored by the Women’s Studies Research Center (Brandeis University), where I have been a researcher since its founding (and where two of the musicians are my colleagues). Is this connection going to bias my writing as a review? I would say not, or at least, no more than I am usually biased.