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Orpheus’s Descendants Revive Boismortier


Dedicating “The War of Cupid and Bacchus” to the memory of the souls who perished in the terrorist attack in Nice minutes before the show began may not have been the best plan, especially since many of the people in the room had apparently been unaware of the horrifying events which clearly constituted a more serious kind of war. Co-directors Ian Pomerantz and Natasha Roule had planned a light entertainment for Les Enfants d’ Orphée’s inaugural celebration of Bastille Day; what else could they have done beyond issuing this dedication/apology? Perhaps they should have said nothing.

Here’s Pomerantz’s explanation to BMInt:

We wanted to send a very clear message that music—specifically French music—is very powerful in the face of those who are trying to destroy the heart of French culture. Music does not exist in and of itself, and must recognize what is happening around it.

Because there were French diplomatic staff in the audience, it would have been neglectful and perhaps insulting to them to ignore what had just transpired in their country on their Independence Day. From their comments, our dedication was deeply appreciated by them. We also needed to send the message that, as an ensemble that has one foot in France and one in America, we have an obligation to place this music firmly in its modern French cultural perspective.

The allusion to combat reflected the placement of Joseph Bodin de Boismortier’s (1689 – 1755) cantatas Le Printemps and L’ Automne as bookended antagonists, celebrating in the first case romantic love, and in the second, referring to the autumn of life, proposing wine as a fitting substitute for more fleshly pleasures of youth (spring).

The domestic-sized Green Room in Union Square Somerville welcomed a standing-room-only audience of about 35 last night to witness an ensemble of six specialists make the case for the proper performance of French Baroque vocal music. In Boismortier’s “Spring,” soprano Jessica Petrus sang airs on the themes of satyrs and nymphs. She sighed and sparkled, telling of the desires and torments encountered on the field of the battle of the sexes. Her clear, focused, charming and decidedly operatic tones modulated with a fine assortment of expressive devices including gorgeous melismas, trills, mordants, roulades, appoggiaturas, and invariably well-rounded phrases.

The support of Nathaniel Cox, theorbo and Byron Schenckman, harpsichord sounded ever alert and engaged, though Ben Swartz’s viola de gamba might have bounced a bit more. In the small space the continuo came across as direct, immediate and powerful. But I’m not sure I understood what Baroque violinist Emily Hale had in mind stylistically. Her exposed part often echoed or embellished the line of the singer, but without Petrus’s expressivity. Was Hale listening? The stylistic dissonance between the two women was extreme. Many string players (and even modern pianists) talk of singing tones. Is this verboten or tabooed in early rep?

Byron Schenckman made much of the four well-differentiated dance movements of Boismortier’s Suite in G Minor Op. 59, No. 2 with a one-manual, single register harpsichord. His rhythmic drive carried a suppleness that made his artful hesitations, ritards, and accelerandos sound inevitable. The Rondeau depicted rustic peasants fleet of foot and colorfully draped. The composer and the performer larded the concluding Gigue with stop and start surprises and amusing false cadences.

Bacchus by Jan van Dalen (1648)

For “Autumn” the theatrical and confident bass-baritone Iam Pomerantz raised his dulcet tones, glasses and bottles in praise of wine. Sporting a wreath of ivy, he gestured broadly, colored vividly and ornamented with taste. As the possessor of an instrument that has been home in many genres, he found a zone in this performance that radiated investment and artistic attitude. With manly support from the ensemble, he artfully, if ironically nodded to Bacchus:

I sighed in the season of flowers.
But in autumn let me drink.

Phyllis has no allure near to this divine juice!
It has extinguished all the fires
That once I burned for her.
If you want her still to be beautiful in my eyes,
give her to me with a glass in her hand.

On the basis of this performance, L’ Automne is worthy of notice and revival. Add a toga instead of basic concert black for Pomerantz and courtly dress for the instrumentalists and you would have compelling grand opera writ small or a Baroque hoedown. Encore it, please, with optional transverse flute instead of violin.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.

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