Utrecht Early Music Festival
by Brett Campbell
A Dutch early music festival finds new energy in French music
XAVIER VANDAMME WAS moving into his new home in Utrecht when an elderly woman called out. “What are you doing here, Belgian?” Having just arrived from his previous post at Brussels’ Palais des Beaux-Arts, he told his new neighbor he was the new director of the 2,000-year old city’s legendary Oude Muziek (Early Music) Festival.
“What festival?” she replied.
Now in its 29th year, the festival has won fame among fans of pre-classical music around the world for its unparalleled explorations of Baroque, Renaissance and medieval sounds; some of its concerts are broadcast in the US on the public radio program Millennium of Music.
But if someone who had lived in Utrecht her entire life didn’t know about a concert that takes over a couple dozen downtown churches and other venues for a week every September, Mr. Vandamme realized, “we needed to make the people who live here get to know us better and adopt us.” He resolved to reach out to the festival’s hometown more this year, including moving the festival HQ to the Domtoren, the giant 14th century cathedral that looms over the town center and hosts some of its concerts.
This year’s program, featuring almost entirely music from the French Baroque, didn’t make his job easy. Often regarded as frivolous, formulaic entertainment for Louis XIV’s courtiers, the repertoire is generally neglected compared to its German and Italian cousins. “There is a Flemish expression: ‘unknown is unloved,’” Mr. Vandamme says. “My aim is to show that there is more going on than the standardized version of early music.” Could the festival redeem this stepchild of the early music movement?
“I put all my money on a single horse,” Vandamme admits, “and it was a risky bet.”
French Baroque’s lightweight reputation today may stem from prissy or otherwise inauthentic performances, in part because the scores coquettishly reveal only a fraction of how the music was actually played in its time. “[The great French Baroque composer] Francois Couperin said that what makes French music different is that it’s like the French language,” notes the festival’s principal guest artist, Jordi Savall. “You write it in one way and you pronounce it in a completely different way.”
That gap between the notes on the page and the way they were meant to be played made the music an ideal candidate for the festival’s philosophy of informing performance with scholarship. Today’s scholar-performers like Savall and American-born flutist Jed Wentz have found that Baroque-era musicians understood how certain signals not explicitly notated in the scores required them to vary all sorts of elements — tempos, rhythms, dynamics, ornaments, even improvisation —to make the music far more expressive without sounding anachronistic. “[The French Baroque composer Jean Philippe] Rameau said, ‘Our music is the music of emotion,’” Mr. Wentz explains. “It’s not pastel music.”
French Baroque’s lightweight reputation today may stem from prissy or otherwise inauthentic performances.
The two dozen concerts I heard (out of more than 100) validated Utrecht’s connection between current research and performance. Some failed to plumb the music’s hidden emotional depths, producing pleasant but unmemorable tunes that lived down to the old French Baroque stereotype.
But these were outnumbered by groups like Mr. Wentz’s Musica ad Rhenum, whose spring-loaded style, adeptly employing tempo changes and phrasing, and guest baritone Maarten Koningsberger’s sly humor owed much to Mr. Wentz’s study of staging and performance styles.
So did a show featuring music of Couperin, Lully and others, in which the theatrical soprano Andréanne Brisson Paquin, accompanied by an energetic young ensemble, compellingly displayed historical stage gestures and a gamut of emotions. Then she rushed to the exit hallway, beaming and holding out a coffee can for donations, which were eagerly proffered by the enchanted audience. These gratuity-only “Fringe” concerts give young ensembles a valuable showcase.
Those and many other astonishingly accomplished and energetic players in their twenties and thirties here grew up on these sounds and instruments and play as if born to it. The young American-born gamba player Josh Cheatham, who now teaches in Utrecht, led a group of shaggy virtuosos who could have passed for an alt rock band, and he also appeared with the splendid trio Pantomime in dazzling music of Rameau.
The spellbinding late night spectacles, including a series of candlelit concerts featuring melancholy settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah and some short, newly commissioned works, proved especially plangent.
The Italian ensemble Il Suonar Parlante’s mournful, dark toned tombeaux — farewells to loved ones played on lute and violas da gamba — seemed to swirl amid the arches of the Pieterskerk. The hushed atmosphere in Ensemble Pierre Robert’s performance left listeners afraid to break the spell till the end, when applause burst forth like a dam breaking.
In La Sfera Armoniosa’s show, the sinuous vocal melodies of soprano Keren Motseri and mezzo Eugénie Warnier (this year’s artist in residence) spiraled above the darker murmurs ofplaintive gamba, sighing cello, lute and humming portative organ, like embers from a dying campfire wafted aloft by a night breeze.
A star on the rise, Ms. Warnier excelled in her own showcase and appearances with La Simphonie du Marais and Le Parlement de Musique. The tiny grande dame of French harpsichord, Blandine Verlet, and others performed genuinely moving midnight solo concerts at the little Lutherskerk, some on what is said to be the most beautiful historic harpsichord in existence: a 1751 Hemsch’s instrument whose supple lower range positively purrs.
While a few groups occasionally lost their way amid the reverberant acoustics of the bigger churches, some of the festival’s finest moments happened in the big, sold-out concerts in the grand old Dom, with its long echoes making you feel like you’re inside a giant instrument.
A little known choir and orchestra, Les Passions & Les Elements, used that acoustic brilliantly in Jean Gilles’ magnificent 1705 Requiem, deploying restrained soloists, a fabulous choir and small period instrument ensemble to just the right effect. Les Arts Florissants’s stirring Dom performance of music by Charpentier and others offered another glorious highlight of seldom heard French choral music.
The finest performances at the modern concert hall in the Vredenburg Leidsche Rijn, a short bus ride away from the many center-city churches that hosted most concerts, revealed just how much recent research into French Baroque performance styles have revitalized the music.
Les Nouveaux Caracteres’ concert performance of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1748 opera-ballet The Surprises of Love crackled with tremendous energy and edge, with blistering flute solos and vocalists who acted their parts as dramatically as in an actual staging.
… astonishingly accomplished and energetic players in their twenties and thirties here grew up on these sounds and instruments and play as if born to it.
The exuberant young players of the Holland Baroque Society flung themselves headlong into a staged “confrontation” between the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Rameau, who loathed each other. Resplendent in what appeared to be a red sharkskin Nehru jacket that was more audible than the theorbos, the flashy conductor Herve Niquet swaggered onstage with Le Concert Spirituel, and, swayingwith the easy grace of a ballet dancer, crisply directed singers who appeared to have taken an advanced course in dramatic body movement, with honors in (appropriate) strutting, and an orchestra whose rhythmic drive and panache utterly convinced me that, for sheer grandeur, you could put Campra’s opera The Carnival of Venice up against half of Handel.
In a closing concert of passion, poignance and power, the venerable Mr. Savall conducted Les Concert Des Nations with the economical elegance of a toreador who doesn’t need to move much to control enormous energy. This concert and others convincingly made Mr. Vandamme’s case that French Baroque music has been unfairly neglected in the early music revival of the past two generations, and that, performed with sensitivity to historical and musical context, it has much to offer classical music lovers.
With a 10% increase in attendance and 42,000 visitors, including a gratifying jump in walk up ticket sales from both Dutch listeners, who make up 85% of attendees, and tourists, it appears that Mr Vandamme’s bet and outreach efforts paid off. Maybe the news even reached his oblivious neighbor.
…. [these concerts]…. convincingly made Mr. Vandamme’s case that French Baroque music has been unfairly neglected in the early music revival of the past two generations.
Yet I wish it could extend to American listeners who, outside a few scattered redoubts, seldom get to hear much Baroque rep beyond Bach, Vivaldi and Handel, and often even then in demode performance styles that lack the palpable verve of the concerts here. Bringing some of these inspirational musicians across the Atlantic and cultivating our own early music institutions could give the sclerotic American classical musical establishment just the injection of vitality it needs.
Brett Campbell writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, Willamette Week, San Francisco Classical Voice, and many other publications.