According to the Boston Early Music Festival website, Symphonie des Dragons “trace[d] the civilizing influence of the oboe band on military and ceremonial music between 1680 and 1720” at their BEMF appearance last night at Jordan Hall. The oboe is one of the oldest instruments in the Western classical tradition, and its glistening, slightly nasal timbre is frequently called upon to add elegance to a variety of musical settings. On Tuesday night, marches and fanfares in the first half of the concert certainly contrasted with the more stylized works of what director Gonzalo X. Ruiz called “the art music part of the show.” The oboe’s “civilizing influences” and the somewhat rarefied title Au Goût du Soldat (A Soldier’s Taste): Refining Regimental Music in France and Germany aside, Ruiz and band still offered plenty of exciting, at times rowdy music at Jordan Hall.
Even with as many as ten oboists onstage at one time, the tones of each player, including the director, were sufficiently differentiated to make solos and duets interesting rather than just monotonously beautiful. The trio for three unaccompanied oboes in the Marche Holandoise was sweet but confident. Several movements worked on the tension between a lone, plaintive oboe and the full ensemble.
Yet movements such as the Marche des Dragons Polonois and the Bourée d’Avignone allowed this very sophisticated instrument to chatter, shout, dance and otherwise stretch out into some delightfully noisy effects. Several oboe soloists appeared in the Marche Suisse and the Suite in D’s concluding “Folia” featured a racing dialog between two oboes improvising over the familiar dance theme. Most of the music came from suites found in the Philidor collection, which contains over one hundred volumes of music compiled by Louis XIV’s librarian André Danican Philidor the elder. As Ruiz pointed out, the court at Versailles had its own “golden oldies” and the suites frequently nodded to earlier periods and styles.
Joined by bassoons and tailles (tenor oboes), and with players doubling recorder and flute, thirteen double reeds created a surprisingly broad palette. An untitled movement from the Suite in G combined savory oboe on top and buzzy bassoon underneath, with raspy taille filling out the middle. High, resplendent oboe trumpeted over rich, massed harmonies in The “Pavane pour les Hautbois” from the Suite in F, and the solemn, transparent “Marche des Pompes Funebres” featured the ensemble inhaling and exhaling like a pipe organ. There were occasional issues with intonation, especially during the second half of the program. At several points Jordan Hall swallowed up inner parts and some of the bassoons’ tumbling bass lines. Yet as Ruiz pointed out, “all music was once new.” This music was performed as a refreshing, slightly less than perfect experience rather than a flawless exercise.
Dressed in a bandana with short-sleeved shirt and Cuban heels, and looking as well as moving more like more like a bebopper than a Baroque conductor, Ruiz is a galvanizing leader as well as stage presence. He directs as much with his body as his oboe, which was heard to dazzling effect in Handel’s G Minor Trio Sonata (Op. 2, No. 5.) Rather than seeming affected or becoming a distraction, Ruiz’s active feet were a natural extension of the music’s sheer rhythm.
The Dragons entered the stage marching and playing, reinforcing this music’s origins as something to move bodies. There was plenty to tap feet and kink the neck along to throughout the program. The strumming guitar as well as the drums, tambourines and castanets (all played with ample energy by percussionist Samuel Budish) were obviously a large part of that effect. The springy Petit Bransle and several sturdy marches demonstrated the ensemble’s solid time, but moments like Ruiz’s jazzy little trio between the marching sections of the Suite in G’s “Pavane” or the backbeat of the Marche de Dragons Polonois demonstrated that rhythm is a matter of an entire ensemble rather than any one instrument. While a lot of rhythm and something to walk out whistling may not make for erudite copy, it’s a pretty accurate description of this concert, as well as an elevated musical end in itself.