Lyra Baroque Orchestra opened its season Saturday at Hamline’s Sundin Hall with a French flair.
The first half featured ten of the orchestra’s musicians —two violins, a cello, viola da gamba, harpsichord, bassoon, and a pair each of flutes and oboes—on Francois Couperin’s Apothéoses.
Lyra’s artistic director, Jacques Ogg, gave some helpful verbal notes before the concert began, explaining the fascinating period of musical partisanship and nationalism in the early years of the eighteenth century that spawned the work.
During the reign of Louis XIV, Jean-Baptiste de Lully controlled all the musical output of France, and because in those days the world revolved around the Sun King, it was illegal to compose music in the Italian style. (This is just a tad ironic, given that Lully was born Giovanni Battista di Lulli in Florence in 1632.) But Lully died in 1687, and Louis XIV in 1715, and after that, the strictures loosened to the point that Couperin (also ironically, born in Paris), could introduce the Italian trio sonata form to France, which he did by way of the Apothéoses.
The apotheoses are that of Lully, the poster child of French musical Académie, and Arcangelo Corelli, who defined Italian music in the same era. Both composers join Apollo and the muses on Mount Parnassus, and at the god’s persuasion, join the tastes of French and Italian music to create the perfection of music itself.
While the music is enjoyable on its own, knowing the story behind a programmatic work like this is the perfect way to get to know musical idioms. Given a helpful handle or two, it’s easy to identify the characters, and emotions and dramatic situations are vivid. A tiny flurry in the treble depicts Mercury’s descent to the Elysian Fields to announce the descent of Apollo from Parnassus, and the following grand gestures indicate the arrival of the god himself. There are even lesser mortal composers, gossiping and whining away.
Lyra’s playing was a little ragged at the start, with unsteady ensemble and intonation issues that are difficult to mask when only a handful of players are involved. But the group quickly gelled and gave a fine, spirited performance that was vivid and convincing. To me, the best moments were in the end of the second suite, when Lully (represented by the concertmaster, Lucinda Marvin) was accompanied by Corelli (played by principal second violin Inger Dahlin), and vice versa. Theirs was truly stunning, stylish playing that would have made Apollo smile.
The second half of the program was an instrumental suite from the opera Alcione by Marin Marais, another major musical figure in the courts of Louis XIV and XV.
The composer, depicted by Gérard Depardieu in the 1991 film Tous les matins du monde, was a student of Lully and a contemporary of Couperin, and as much of a superstar as a viol player has ever been. Alcione traces the myth of the lovers Ceyx and Alcyone as recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ceyx dies in a storm at sea, and the bereft Alcyone tries to join him in death, but the gods change them both into sea birds whose presence signifies calm, “halcyon” waters. For this, four more violins, two violas and a bass added rich, fleshy depth to the band.
You can tell that Marais was a viol player—he gives them shapely florid lines, which were gorgeously rendered by Lyra’s low strings.
There was some really brilliant virtuosic playing in the upper strings and winds, especially during the tempest movement (which was a bit drowned out by the wind machine, a wonderful eighteenth-century special effect), and in the joyous final movement’s flute duet, sweetly played by Paul Jacobson and Rachel Hest, that undoubtedly characterizes the reunited lovers.
Lyra really has a perfect venue in Sundin Hall—it’s a bright, clean acoustic, and the size is appropriate to the smaller scale of sound that period instruments put out. The audience fills out the space rather than being overwhelmed by it, as well.
I found myself driving home wondering why early music has a niche following. But maybe it’s not a bad thing to be gelato in a world of Dairy Queen.