Tempesta di Mare and the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presented an unplanned Louis XIV mini-festival last weekend with back-to-back concerts. The Chamber Music program peeked at the music the Sun King played in private, on his lute. Tempesta di Mare focused on the music that decorated court life in Versailles and the spread of its influence as its ambitious monarch turned his court into the cultural center of Europe.
The Chamber Music program presented an international lute star, Miguel Yisrael, playing music composed by the Sun King’s lute teachers. Germain Pinel taught Louis during the king’s childhood and adolescence. Robert de Visée taught him in his later years, from 1695 until Louis died in 1715 at 77.
Yisrael’s lute held his audience from the first note to the last, even though he was playing one of the most refined instruments ever devised and offering his listeners the kind of music an accomplished aristocrat would have played in his private chambers for his own pleasure. Yisrael maintained interest and variety because he never forgets that most movements in Baroque suites are based on dances. When he played a slow sarabande movement, Yisrael gave it a strong beat that stressed the rhythmic pattern. When he played the moderate, rather foursquare Allemande, he took it a little faster than it’s usually played and spiced it with a dash of engaging liveliness. The opening notes of de Visée’s arrangement of Couperin’s Les Sylvains sounded like a cheerful march.
The Tempesta di Mare concert moved the festivities to the court and the stage. It opened with Lully’s theater music for Molière’s The Bourgeois Gentleman — a comedy that must have been a hit with Louis XIV’s courtiers, since it ridicules a middle class upstart who tries to ape the manners of the aristocracy. It followed the Lully with three pieces illustrating the influence of French style: selections from a musical version of The Tempest by an English composer, Matthew Locke; a suite from Igor Stravinsky’s 1928 ballet Apollon musagète; and an overture from an orchestral suite by a German Baroque composer, Johann Sigismund Kusser.
Tempesta placed 25 musicians on the Perelman Theater stage — a large orchestra by Baroque standards (although small by ours). The Baroque pieces included the same kind of dance music and airs that Yisrael played on the lute, but they were embellished by vivid, lively orchestration. The orchestral effects included guitar duets, flights on the piccolo, a rustic air played by a solo violinist standing in the rear of the violin section, and even a bit of hand clapping. Percussionist Michelle Humphreys contributed rousing drum music, a silvery passage on the xylophone, and special effects like castanets.
Stravinsky’s Apollo problem
The Stravinsky was a historical oddity — a suite based on French Baroque styles composed for modern instruments in the early 20th century played on Baroque instruments in the early 21st century. Although it bore the most famous byline on the menu, it was the weakest item on the menu — not because it was played on the older instruments, but because Stravinsky took the Apollo myth too seriously.
By contrast, the Kusser piece that followed showcased a composer who seems to have perceived the Apollo myth as a grand excuse to write music that would give his audience a good time. Kusser followed his introduction with a booming full-bodied march and continued with music that brought the evening to a bright, happy close.
Musicologists can offer you solid technical descriptions of French Baroque style. For me, its essence is a combination of elegance and pleasure — tasteful, beautifully crafted music that satisfies our appetite for color, rhythm, and melody. Add a touch of English sturdiness or German force and you can see how the splendors of the Sun King mutated into the glories of Handel, Purcell, and Bach.