Perhaps the precursor for “Most Interesting Man in the World,” Afro-French composer Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George (1745-1799), rose from being the illegitimate son of a Senegalese slave and her French master to become a champion fencer, royal equestrian, personal assistant to King Louis XV and darling of the Parisian aristocracy, with his talent as a composer and virtuoso violinist securing him a small but well-deserved place in history. Between works by Antoine Dauvergne (1713-1797) and Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764), Saint-George’s music proved the ideal centerpiece for l’académie’s “The Three Musketeers” program Friday night at Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill. The period instrument ensemble and its co-founder/director Leslie Kwan specialize in music of 17th- and 18th-century France, as well as smart, stylish performance of lesser-known works. The concert will be repeated tonight at the same venue at 8:00 pm.
Kwan conducted the full complement of strings, woodwinds and horns in Saint-George’s Violin Concerto in D Major, op. 3, No. 1, and coaxed sensitive yet invigorating accompaniment behind soloist Joan Plana. He in turn brought spontaneity as well as polish to music that Tafelmusik director Jeanne Lamon described as more demanding than any of Mozart’s contemporaneous works. Plana alternated a scrappy attack with an easygoing glide across Boulange’s athletic first movement Allegro Maestoso, and his subtle gradations of tone offered textural as well as emotional contrast, allowing Saint-George’s beautiful scoring for flute, oboe and horn to peak through. Given Plana’s attention to detail and dynamically nuanced cadenza, holding applause seemed like an outdated convention.
The central movement illustrated Saint-George’s expressive gifts as well as his technical ability. Beginning with a pensive theme rather than a merely lyrical one — like most middle movements of this era, the Adagio revolved around a sense of dejection and frustration. Brief transitions from minor to major quickly turned glum. Plana explored this melancholy scene without turning sentimental or self-involved. The twisting, angular second theme, with the violins in imitation behind the soloist, became a tragic scene, capped off by a cadenza more like a lonely protagonist than a soloist on display. The fleet but noble Rondeau closed the concerto, with Plana calling out a lively tune for the orchestra and a simply addictive rhythm, as easy to dance to as to time a watch.
L’académie’s knack for the unique blend of delicacy and dance that characterizes 18th-century French music was also evident in works by the other “musketeers” that book-ended the program. Dauvergne held distinguished positions in France as leader of the Academy of Music, composer and teacher in the King’s chamber, and director of the popular Concert Spirituels. Starting the evening with his Concert des Simphonies in A, op. 4, No. 2, Kwan directed a strings-only ensemble from behind the harpsichord. Tight, energetic playing and rich, transparent textures made for an atmospheric two-part, French-style overture, followed by a graceful Minuetto based on a descending pattern. The ensemble clearly enjoyed the fifth movement Vivace’s startling phrases and sudden pauses; and the closing Chaconne built tension and release from a swirling diminished chord. The continuo’s sense of when to be felt rather than heard enhanced the harmony and rhythm in subtle yet powerful fashion.
Leclair taught both Boulogne and Dauvergne, and was known for his violin technique and for incorporating Italian virtuosity and lyricism into the music of his native France. While the suite from Leclair’s sole opera, Scylla et Glaucus, reveals few Italian influences, its sophisticated harmonies (resembling Leclair’s contemporary Rameau) and vibrant woodwinds made for a compelling story on its own. The first movement overture featured the same light, tight touch as the Dauvergne overture, this time with a plummy bassoon reinforcing the bass.
The Gigue offered another robust dance for the ensemble, while the delicate Air unveiled chamber intimacy with flute over two violins. Far from being “just” a continuo instrument twinkling underneath, Kwan’s harpsichord was another timbral color, especially for the “Marche de Bergers et des Silvaines.” Starting with the dark, storming Loure and its scurrying violins, successive movements stayed in the minor key until the release of the “Air de Forlanne,” with an authentic wind machine depicting a storm. Yet the most convincing “weather” in the suite was supplied by l’académie itself: bright, sunny oboes, concertante violins and buffeting strings over flurrying winds made the final Simphonie a lively concert finale.