REVIEW: Juilliard’s Fast Takes on French Baroque

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Review by  James R. Oestreich , New York Times

The bass Alex Rosen, center, with William Christie leading Juilliard415 in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Castor et Pollux” at Alice Tully Hall on Wednesday evening. CreditHiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

“If Italy sang,” the early-music guru William Christie said in a master class at the Juilliard School’s Paul Hall on Tuesday afternoon, “Paris and France danced.” The comment seemed germane to the moment, with an excellent group of period-instrumentalists from the school’s historical performance program poised to play Jean-Féry Rebel’s “Les Caractères de la Danse,” a madcap tour of 18th-century French dance forms.

But as Mr. Christie knows full well, Paris also sang. An American conductor long resident in France, where he has conceived innumerable exemplary revivals of French Baroque opera, he was visiting New York mainly to lead Juilliard415, the school’s excellent period band, in music of Jean-Philippe Rameau — vocal and instrumental extracts from the tragédie lyriques “Castor et Pollux” (1737) and “Dardanus” (1739) — on Wednesday evening at Alice Tully Hall.

It was a brilliant, fast-paced evening, with each work potted into a half-hour or so and equal justice done to dance and song. Plot summaries and character descriptions need not detain us here.

The arias were handsomely delivered by singers from the school’s vocal arts program: Tamara Banjesevic and María Fernanda Brea, sopranos; Joshua Blue, tenor; and Alex Rosen, bass. Mr. Blue displayed considerable amplitude in “Lieux funestes” (“Funereal scenes”), an inspired Rameau afterthought.

 

      

 

Rameau was a pioneering music theorist and brilliant orchestral innovator as well as composer, and his scintillating signature sonority is that of multiple anchoring bassoons, playing in unison, often in a high register. Here four bassoonists were typically set against four oboists and a pair of flutists doubling on piccolo.

The percussionist, Gregory LaRosa, had an especially fine time, playing drum, bass drum, triangle and wind machine. But his main task was adding the titular instrument in several tambourins, dances that were unaccountably overlooked by Rebel in his catalog.

Mr. Christie, a force in Juilliard’s historical performance program from its inception in 2009, took obvious delight in challenging the players. He favored fast tempos, sometimes quickening them playfully (as in a “Dardanus” tambourin that was the second number repeated as an encore), and conducted long stretches with the mere nod of a head, if that.

He ended the master class on Tuesday by praising the level of the students’ playing and saying how proud he was to be a part of the program. He had every reason to be so again on Wednesday.

 

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