It is said that curmudgeonly composer Jean-Baptiste Lully would break violins “across the backs” of musicians who played his notes incorrectly. Though such authentic performance practice was not recreated for this performance, it hardly would have been necessary. The 20-member BEMF Orchestra, despite its full days of preparations for the BEMF opera Almira, gave a remarkably exciting performance at Jordan Hall last Thursday.
In “The Birth of the Orchestra,” some giants of such entity’s earliest years were indeed on display: Handel, Corelli, Lully, and Georg Muffat, as well as John Blow and Philipp Erlebach. As leader Robert Mealy pointed out, the Italian and French orchestral schools were quite different in those years, though the shared demands for excellent performance were not. Lully’s Chacone of Galathée was a highlight of the evening’s first half, and all the more so for the four Baroque dancers (also featured in Almira) who emerged onstage to much applause. Caroline Copeland and Carlos Fittante whirled graciously about the stage, employing Baroque gestures and nicely complementing the orchestra’s gentle rhythmic inequality. Mickaël Bouffard gave a more dramatic and bombastic performance to the Premier entré from the Ballet Royal de la Flore, while Karin Modigh’s Gavotte pour la Suitte des Flor from Atys was lovely and light.
The BEMF orchestra is composed of some of the finest Baroque musicians working today, with many world-renowned for solo performance. Quite a few of them received welcome moments in the spotlight Thursday. Gonzalo Ruiz’s oboe shone in Muffat’s Dulce Somnium, its plaintive line in the Sarabanda emerging from the soft cushion of the orchestra’s accompaniment. Mealy’s solo playing was as sharp as his spiffy new haircut, and most particularly when exchanging dialogue with Cynthia Roberts’s second violin in Handel’s Il Trionfo del Tempo. Both keyboardists reveled in their prodigious prestidigitation: Avi Stein’s technical wizardry sparkled in Trionfo’s virtuosic organ solo, while Michael Sponseller, long rumored to have eight fingers on each hand, released rollicking rolled chords that continuously revitalized the rhythm. Phoebe Carrai’s fearless and fearsome leadership from the principal violoncello was a sight to behold, in her command of gesture and communication through body language; Ben Grossman’s percussion dazzled and thumped with great vigor.
As director, Mealy has formed a superb collective from an incredible wealth of solo talent. His leadership was perhaps most evident in the Allegro of Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in D Major, where the orchestra responded seemingly as one instrument to each of the lead violin’s calls. In his off-the-cuff remarks, Mealy re-titled the concert “Chaconne ‘til you Moan,” and, indeed, there were audible sighs following Muffat’s Passacaglia from Propitia Sydera, as well as some of the half dozen or so other chaconnes. Naturally, the whole evening was not of such great emotional depth: if the chaconnes were rich with nostalgia, longing, and ultimate release, John Blow’s Suite from Venus and Adonis was all the more naughty in that heavy context, toying around with dance conventions, or melodically tripping along and making gauche imitations. Erlebach’s Orchestra Suite No. 5 swung from nicely dignified in the Ouverture to fun and jangly in the Bourrée, before closing with yet another Chaconne; all the while, the bass line remained ever clear and consistent. Above all, the communicative, sensitive, vital performances on display showed attention both among the performers and to the minutest details of the music.
On their night off from a four-hour opera, the orchestra threw together, seemingly without effort, a wonderful, varied concert, full of energy, affect, and vitality. What was bad about it? Hard to say. Maybe some stuff could have been slower. With players this good, and an ensemble so tight, with such mastery of this music on all levels—moods, affects, tempi, the dance, and so on—it was a tough concert to criticize, but an easy one to enjoy.