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Baroque Lessons in Savoir Vivre


Exemplifying the Baroque use of music to guide the listener to a particular state of mind, to help form a world view and to inculcate new ways of being, Les Bostonades presented a program of elegant Baroque works ranging from Lully to Handel on Friday at First Church, Boston. Hank Knox visited from McGill in Montreal to direct the performance, working with his former student Akiko Sato.

Best to begin at the end with their encore and chronologically the earliest piece they played, Lully’s Chaconne des Scaramouches, Trivelins et Arlequins (1670). Both forceful and lively, it was rich and full of wit, teaching an exaggerated form of self-assertion through formal courtly gestures while also spoofing it.

In contrast, the opening piece of the concert, Lully’s Suite in G Major, from Cadmus et Hermione (Tragédie en Musique), was written in 1673 after Lully’s break from Molière and the dimension of wit was gone. The goal of praising the Sun King and imposing a formalist language on all of Europe through ruthless power-mongering alone remained. In the interpretation given by Les Bostonades an interesting sense of the danger of envy was conveyed in the third selection, Entrée de l’Envie, and a nice hint of sarcasm came through in the fourth selection, Entrée des Sacrificateurs. The ensuing Air pour Comus et sa Suite was perhaps too timid, lacking the air of autocratic grandeur that Lully intended. The concluding Chaconne du Palmier africain subtly conveyed Lully’s own personal tragedy of paying a steep price to become a successful courtier.

The second piece, Vivaldi’s Concerto for strings and continuo in C major, RV 114, was a little gem, complex and filled with subtleties, beautifully executed by the ensemble. What was conveyed here was an exhortation to seize the day and take delight in every shimmering and brief Earthly pleasure.

Court musician of Louis XV and later of the Princess of Orange, Jean-Marie Leclair was 18 when Louis XIV died and 19 when Watteau painted his Fête Galante, depicting a return to a more Gallic, amorous and permissive society. Les Bostonades gave the Flute Concerto in C Major an engaging and slightly mysterious Allegro which moved away from courtly pomp to a more down-to-earth gentility. With Teddie Hwang’s sensitive phrasing on the traverso, the Adagio urged us to take interest in tender emotions and small but meaningful human interactions. The concluding allegro assai celebrated convivial gathering, in which human beings enjoy each other’s company through a shared curiosity in developing a new science of human emotions.

After the intermission we were treated to two magnificent pieces, Telemann’s Concerto for Recorder and Viola da gamba in a minor, TWV 52:a1 and Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No.2. The Telemann was rendered with a distinctive weight to each movement, making shrewd use of the slow-fast-slow-fast construction. The opening Grave, with subtle nuances in Andrew Arceci’s viola da gamba and overall intricate textures, conveyed the quiet and poised joy of daily thanksgiving. The ensuing Allegro was rendered as a burst of fire tempered by Heloise Degrugillier’s spiritual recorder, conveying a zeal for life restrained by wisdom. The Dolce preached a new kind of elegance without stiffness, based on a genuine sensitivity to the worth of human politeness, articulated especially by the recorder. The concerto culminated in a final Allegro that taught confidence in the human power to integrate efforts and take pleasure in cooperation, emphasized in particular by the duet of recorder and viola da gamba.

In Handel’s Concerto Grosso the Andante larghetto explored the surprising idea that elegance is in itself a source of complexity and inner discovery. Les Bostonades conveyed this by allowing individual instrumental colors and textures to shine through, including brief flourishes from Hank Knox’s harpsichord. The ensuing Allegro conveyed a subtle delight in skill, its quasi-fugal energy emphasizing the delight of human capacity to employ artistry and skill. A majestic Largo created a dialogue that called on us to enjoy leisure time for reflecting and putting life in perspective (reminiscent of the new interest in more relaxed gardens and landscaping). The concluding Allegro ma non troppo served as a marvelous treatise on aesthetics, reminding us that beauty is absolutely essential to human society. What the return to Lully in the encore told us was that these elements were perhaps present from the start in Lully, but did not come to fruition until the middle of the 18th century, with a more integrated Europe committed across linguistic borders to arts and sciences.

Curtain call at First Church
Curtain call at First Church
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

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