Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the Festival portion of the sixth annual Festival & Academy of the American Bach Soloists (ABS) got under way. The program was the first of two given the title Versailles & The Parisian Baroque, and both of those settings were recognized through the selection of composers. Both Jean-Féry Rebel and Jacques Aubert were members of Les Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi (the 24 violins of the King), established by Louis XIII in 1626 as a “resident” ensemble for the monarchy; and Aubert was also appointed principal violinist at the Paris Opera, the venue for music by the third composer on the program, Jean-Philippe Rameau.
It is amusing to speculate whether or not ABS Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas realized that this year’s Festival would begin less than a month after the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the opening of Disneyland. In many respects both Versailles and the Paris Opera were the two major venues of escapism, although they were intended for a much narrower (and highly privileged) sector of the population than Disneyland was; and one could say that the three suites performed last night were escapist in their approach to entertainment. Most likely all three served as accompaniment for the performance of dance, meaning that each provided a diversion that was visual as well as auditory.
In the less elite setting of SFCM such music could still impress. Rebel’s suite, Les Élémens (the elements), was nothing less than a musical depiction of Creation itself. However, unlike Joseph Haydn, who would later draw upon the Book of Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost for his oratorio account of Creation, Rebel was more abstract and philosophical. Where Haydn saw the initial chaos in terms of the uncertainty of ambiguous chord progressions, Rebel opted for a tone cluster (the first in the history of Western music?) in place of any chord; and, out of that undistinguished mass of pitches would emerge distinctive brief motifs for earth, water, fire, and air. These would then develop through the usual dance movements of any suite from the Baroque period, interrupted, for a single movement, by a representation of nightingales. Les Élémens, like the other two works on the program, was composed during the reign of Louis XV, who may well have enjoyed recognizing the many representations in this score (even if they were not underscored by costumed dancers) as part of the isolated comforts of Versailles.
Aubert’s suite, on the other hand, was more focused on dance forms and probably served an “entertainment” at which the dancers may have drawn greater interest. Nevertheless, the absence of a viola part makes for many rather distinctive sonorous effects. The emphasis is definitely on the upper register with pairs of flutes (alternating with piccolos), oboes, and violins, with the string parts alternating between solos and small groups. A pair of bassoons adds to the continuo while also venturing into melodic domains of its own. The result is a broad sense of sonorous diversity made particularly transparent through the limitation of overall resources. This makes for some rather unique listening opportunities for present-day audiences, although Louis probably devoted most of his attention to the ornately costumed dancers.
Rameau’s suite was taken from his opera Naïs, first performed at the Paris Opera in 1749. This setting was not as elite as Versailles; but it was still more an aristocratic, rather than public, venue. One might speculate that the Paris Opera provided the lower levels of aristocracy with opportunities to indulge in many of the delights of Versailles without having to rub shoulders with that more detached monarchy. Still, the Parisians in the audience most likely shared their monarch’s preference for visual amusements and probably got those amusements from the dances performed to Rameau’s music.
Those of us who were at SFCM last night for music, on the other hand, needed no such visual distractions. Thomas gave each of these suites a spirited account, through which one could enjoy not only the diversity in expressive styles that unfolded from movement to movement but also no end of intriguing approaches to instrumentation. This was all quite some distance from the ensemble’s namesake. Indeed, Johann Sebastian Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel was a particularly harsh critic of the treatise on harmony that Rameau wrote. However, all of the music last night was given an account as loving as it was clear, promising that this year’s Festival would provide us with a new point of view on music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.