Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A very Charpentier Christmas

I've been meaning for some time (I know, I keep saying that!) to catch up with the Musicians of the Old Post Road (the core instrumental ensemble, at left), but didn't get a chance to until their charming Christmas concert last weekend at Emmanuel Church.

The evening was entirely given over to Marc-Antoine Charpentier (below right), a French Baroque composer perhaps most famous for his Messe de minuit pour noël - which, despite being quite well-known, and obviously written for the Christmas season, was not on this program in any form. Go figure. Luckily, Charpentier wasn't a one-trick pony - in fact his oeuvre includes several operas, ballets, and even some incidental music for Molière - and this versatility was evident in the lesser-known, but still charming, carols and sacred music the Musicians of the Old Post Road had chosen to perform.

During his life, this accomplished composer dwelt in the rather antagonistic shadow of the more august Lully, but in some ways he's more historically important than the designated court composer to Louis XIV (he introduced many features of Italian music to France, for instance, which Lully resisted - even though he himself was Italian!).  And of late, thanks to increasing interest from period ensembles, Charpentier has begun to come into his own again in terms of performance.

The Musicians of the Old Post Road gave a good sense of why.  Charpentier has a way of sneaking up on you, almost on tip-toe, with surprisingly complex musical and emotional experiences.  Everything on last weekend's program was fairly small in scale, and often cut with a gently sweet sense of melancholy  (imagine - melancholic holiday music!), but also gave a sense of a deliberate, gentle unfolding of musical richness.  His In nativitatem Domini canticum (H 416) was in particular a near-marvel of subtle drama; its encounter between the shepherds and the angels hinted at haunting depths of uncertainty before lifting off into a delicate song of joy.  There were other, similarly lyrical surprises throughout the program, always embedded in simple structures that through careful, steady development revealed surprising depths.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier
The instrumentalists of the Old Post Road were always up to these challenges, and played buoyantly, and at times with a dancing lilt that would have done Boston Baroque proud.  Cellist Daniel Ryan and traverso flutist Suzanne Stumpf are the artistic directors of the group, but in performance the ensemble's core seemed to be violinists Sarah Darling and "guest star" Jesse Irons, who played with remarkable sympathy and spirit.  The ensemble played with its best unity, however, whenever cellist Ryan led the way with one of Charpentier's beautiful, deceptively simple, ground basses.

The vocalists were a bit more variable, although everyone sang with sensitivity - and their blended sound was surprisingly good.  The strongest impressions, however, were made by tenor Matthew Anderson and (especially) baritone Aaron Engebreth, who sang with power as well as feeling.  People often bemoan the lack of true Christmas spirit in the entertainment offerings of the holiday season, and of course they're often right to - but can you really expect to find the true meaning of Christmas at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular?  The very idea is bizarre.   Meanwhile our church sanctuaries and halls have been hosting holiday programs from our local choruses and fine small ensembles (like the Musicians of the Old Post Road) that have brimmed with the very spirit we claim we miss.  Of course it's not necessarily a simplistically merry or "feel-good" spirit, because Christmas isn't a simplistic holiday, and human connection, much less human connection to the divine, is a very complicated thing.  In his subtle way, Charpentier reminds us of that.

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