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Violons du Roy at the Terrace Theater

Snow in Washington—real snow like what fell yesterday (you can see the results)—always makes me a little nostalgic for the Michigan of my boyhood. As an expatriate from the Great Lakes State (and someone born in mid-winter, which I like to think has something to do with it), I am one of those crazies who actually enjoy snowy winters. Why do I live in a normally snow-deprived place like Washington, D.C., you ask? Well, what I do not miss is the lesser cultural calendar of my home state. In places like East Lansing, Ann Arbor, and Detroit, you can hear good music, but nothing like the gluttonous feast we enjoy here. As I wrote here on Thursday, I would be attending one and sometimes two excellent musical events every day this weekend, if I had my way. Now, family commitments come first, so I am not going to be able to follow my insane cultural dream schedule, but I could! (This reminds me of what a friend in Paris said when I called her on a Sunday morning. No, she was not actually asleep, "Mais j'aurais pu!" [But I could have been!]. That was what offended her about my call.)

When I ran into fellow Ionarts music critic Jens Laurson at the Kennedy Center last night, he was waiting to see the Kirov Opera's performance of Boris Godunov (see his thoughts on the performance). Would I see that, or the Glass 7th Symphony with the National Symphony (see Jens's review)? Not even I really knew until I got there and bought a ticket. I went back and forth but ultimately decided that, as a Baroque specialist, I should follow my original plan and go up to the Terrace Theater to hear Les Violons du Roy with soprano Karina Gauvin. The fact that Jens's response was "Who?" indicates that my choice was the most obscure, something that also gives me some perverse satisfaction.

You might think, given their Bourbon-inspired name (not the spirit, which is an inspiration of its own wonderful kind, but the royal family of France), that Les Violons du Roy is a French group. In fact, Bernard Labadie founded the group in Québec City in 1984, along with La Chapelle de Québec the following year. They came to Washington to perform an all-Bach and Handel program, with the assistance of soprano Karina Gauvin. (Labadie and Gauvin recently collaborated on Handel's Messiah, combining La Chapelle de Québec with a chamber-sized selection of players from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, at Disney Hall last month. See the very positive review from LA Weekly.)

Although I had been able to get a fairly good single seat at the last minute, the Terrace Theater was nearly full that evening and buzzing with languages other than English. The orchestra is small, with eight violins (strangely, all women) balanced by three violas, two cellos, and one bass (strangely, all men). The wind group was represented only by two oboes and one bassoon (strangely again, all women), and a theorbo and harpsichord (both men) provide continuo realization. Many of the players seem young, which is not any sort of judgment on their talent or experience. However, it did get me to thinking about how this sort of specialized ensemble offers opportunities to younger players, perhaps on their way to more traditional sorts of jobs. Will there be a time when the concept of an "early music" playing style is not unusual, when most instrumentalists will have spent at least some time playing this kind of repertoire? Perhaps we are already there?

Les Violons du Roy play on modern instruments, which gives them a lot of sonic power in spite of their smaller size (that one bass player alone can really reinforce the bass side of the texture). What really makes their performances stand out is the tempi chosen by Labadie, often extraordinarily fast, their accuracy and unity of sound, and the sense that musical gesture has been clearly thought out and strictly implemented. I heard only two instances of slightly off intonation the entire evening, and only one passage that did not seem quite rhythmically unified. It was a whisker short of technically perfect, and that accuracy does not come at the cost of passionate playing. The program opened with a suite of instrumental music from Handel's Alcina (1735), one of those operas that should be performed a lot more than it is. The French-style ouverture set the tone for the evening, with crisp dotted rhythms in the slow section and remarkable control in the fast section. The dance movements all made me want to dance, the lilting Musette, a very fast Menuet, a Gavotte with nice contrast of short notes and legato playing, and another Gavotte with a bouncy solo for bassoonist Nadina Mackie Jackson. This was only the first piece of the night in which Ms. Jackson, with her short spiky hair (in places tinted red), bipped and bopped her way through a Baroque love of rhythm. She was the talk of many at intermission.

There was also charming ballet music, for Songes agréables (Pleasant dreams) and Songes funestes (Bad dreams), who frighten their pleasant counterparts. Then there is a combat between the two groups. A sinfonia and a final entrée for dancing conclude the suite. It's incredible that Handel took a German education at the organ, added the best of what Italian opera and French Baroque orchestral and ballet music had to offer, and produced a series of great operas for English audiences. It's even more incredible that it is only now being rescued from oblivion, first through recordings and now, gradually, in opera houses (even the Met).

For her contribution, Karina Gauvin jumped on the Handel bandwagon with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (reviewed by Alex Ross) and Renée Fleming (reviewed by Jens Laurson), both of whose Handel aria recordings were on many of the 2004 year's best lists. However, her first two selections struck me as pedestrian. "Oh! Had I Jubal's Lyre" from Joshua and "Where'er You Walk" from Semele are two of those English-language arias that get performed a lot, so you have to do something new with them. Labadie and Gauvin's solution for both was to choose a breakneck tempo, especially for the former. This showcased Ms. Gauvin's deft handling of the melismas, as well as the nice addition of ornamentation, especially in the latter.

Ms. Gauvin moved on to more original choices, with "Piangarò la sorte mia" from Julius Caesar and "Lusinghe più care" from Alessandro. These pieces revealed her highest range to be better suited to graceful, softer situations. Occasionally, one missed some raw power up there, at least that night. However, the ornamentation was brilliant and daringly original, which is how this music is meant to be sung. The best discovery of the program was J. S. Bach's Sinfonia from the cantata Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbaths (BWV 42), for the First Sunday after Easter. The program notes compare it to the Brandenburg Concerti, and that is how it came across in performance. For this piece, the favoriti group of both oboes and the bassoon were seated closer to the front. This performance totally convinced me of the possibility of presenting such pieces from the vocal works outside of their original context. All the better, since the second half began with a groundbreaking rendition of something that gets a lot more play, Bach's first Orchestral Suite in C major (BWV 1066). This is how you can take something you think you know and make it fresh.

Ms. Gauvin's best moments came in her last selections and encore. We returned to Handel's Alcina, with two arias. At the end of the B section of "Ah! mio cor!" Ms. Gauvin accomplished the da capo return with a breathtaking mini-cadenza. With panting and breathlessness (an artifice belied by perfect breath support when she actually sang), she brought an excellent sense of Alcina's outrage at being betrayed. She sang "Tornarmi a vagheggiar" in a rapid 3, with the most beautiful sustained high singing of the night. The sense of drama that Ms. Gauvin brought to these arias was continued in a truly emotional encore performance of "Lascia ch'io pianga" (from Rinaldo), again with exquisite ornamentation. Mine were not the only moist eyes in the auditorium.

This program of music will receive only one other performance this winter, at Cal Tech's Beckman Auditorium in Pasadena, California, next Sunday, January 30, at 3:30 pm.

See also the review (Les Violons du Roy, January 24) by senior music critic Joseph McLellan for the Washington Post.

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