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Les Arts Florissants (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second part of a review of a concert by Les Arts Florissants at the Kennedy Center in Washington on February 3. Here is Part 1.

William ChristieWilliam Christie, founder and director of Les Arts Florissants (image at right from, was born in Buffalo. After his university studies at Harvard and Yale, he moved permanently to Paris in 1971 and established his now-famous group in 1979. He had studied harpsichord with Ralph Kirkpatrick and knew French Baroque music before he moved to France. For an article announcing the concert of Les Arts Florissants in Chicago (Les Arts Florissants, February 1, in the Chicago Sun-Times), Wynne Delacoma printed portions of an interview she had with William Christie, who told her why Charpentier's music interested him when he started Les Arts Florissants:

"It's a style of music I like very much," he said of the composer whose little "idylle en musique" composed in 1685-86 provided Les Arts Florissants with its name. "It's a very personal kind of language, very colored and very rich. More than that, the fact that he wrote for small groups of singers and instrumental players was just perfect for me because that's exactly what I had when I founded my own ensemble in 1979. The pieces he wrote seemed to fit us perfectly well."
How did he first come into contact with Charpentier's music?
"I got to know the music of Charpentier in the States, through modern editions of his works. . . . The most important were done by my friend Wiley Hitchcock way back, 40 or 50 years ago. When I came to Europe, all of the autograph manuscripts were in Paris."
This is the sort of story that makes a musicologist's heart sing. H. Wiley Hitchcock, eminent historian of French Baroque music (the H. numbers attached to Charpentier's works stand for "Hitchcock," from his 1982 catalogue of the composer's complete works) and champion of American music, does research and publishes an edition; William Christie tackles the scores with a group of talented performers; years later, I can listen to concerts and a pile of recordings of Charpentier and other composers from Les Arts Florissants. This is why we do what we do. (If you want to find out more about Charpentier's autograph score for Les Arts Florissants, take a look at this page from Charpentier specialist Patricia Ranum, who has published numerous Musicological Musings on her Web site.)

The second opera on the program Tuesday night, La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers (H. 488, c. 1686), featured a ninth singer as Orpheus, Scottish tenor Paul Agnew, who was extraordinary in this role. In the second scene, Orpheus learns that his bride, Euridice (Sophie Daneman, in a sadly small role here), has died of a snakebite. In his aria "Lâche amant, pourrais-tu survivre" (Cowardly lover, could you outlive), on the word "Mourons!" (Let us die!), there is a very high retardation, a loud note that is resolved to a soft higher note, which Agnew sang with such force and grace that it took my breath away.

French choral music of this time is often in a deceptively simple homophonic style. Charpentier wrote very effectively in this style for the chorus that ends Act I, "Juste sujet de pleurs" (True cause for tears), sung by the nymphs and shepherds as Orphée departs to the underworld in search of Euridice. The slow succession of harmonies created a powerful impact as shaped by Christie and his singers. This last moment in the world of mortals is followed, in Act II, by a darkening of tonal color, as Charpentier silences most of his treble instruments. In this performance, three more viole da gamba players joined the bottom-heavy continuo group, which plays for most of the time in the underworld scenes, along with the reedy organ at Christie's hands.

This opera is much more a tour de force for a single voice, Orphée, than the ensemble piece of Les Arts Florissants. Agnew excelled in the several beautiful and difficult arias by which Orpheus relieves the torments of three famous shades in hell (Ixion, Tantalus, and Tityus) and charms Prosperpina and, through her, Pluto. All in all, the audience was vocal in its appreciation of this performance, with many shouts of "Bravo" for the various singers who took bows. When soprano Sunhae Im brought William Christie from his place at the harpsichord, however, I was the only one in the house to yell a loud "Bravo." People in front of me glanced back, curious why I was so impressed with the keyboard player, apparently without knowing that none of this would be possible without him. Not only the miracle that is Les Arts Florissants, but so much else in the world of Baroque music performance. As Erica Jeal, writing in The Guardian, put it:
More than any of his contemporaries, Christie has been an educator as much as a performer and tastemaker: not just of his audiences, not simply through his decades of teaching at the Paris Conservatoire, but by example. A quick glance at the biographies of Marc Minkowski, Christophe Rousset [whose group Les Talens Lyriques will be at the Library of Congress on April 21] and Emmanuelle Haïm will confirm this. For aspiring conductors of Baroque opera, playing continuo under Christie is an education par excellence.
The ending of Charpentier's La Descente d'Orphée is enigmatic and uncertain: as Orpheus and Euridice depart, the chorus of spirits and shades begs him to stay so they can hear his voice forever. We are not informed if the couple make it to the world of the living successfully, but in this performance, I truly would have liked Mr. Agnew and Les Arts Florissants to stay a little while longer. In fact, the audience applauded heartily at the conclusion of this opera: seeing the performers take a last bow and return to their instruments, we thought they were going to play an encore and stopped applauding. Embarrassed, they left the stage in silence before I could yell "bis!"

William Christie and his musicians have made recordings of Charpentier's Les Arts Florissants (1992) and La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers (1996). If you want to catch Les Arts Florissants before they go back to France, you have three more chances: at Alice Tully Hall in New York on February 5 and 7, and at Emory University's Schwarz Center in Atlanta on February 9.

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