Friday, October 10, 2014

Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra sheds light on the Sun King's influential music czar

Musical revolutions are instigated, like their more consequential political counterparts, by small groups of people, sometimes simply by individuals who know how to acquire and maintain personal power —  and effectively turn aside competitors.

Barthold Kuijken,  preeminent baroque flutist, directs the IBO.
One of the most astonishing examples was the career and legacy of the Italian-born musician Jean-Baptiste Lully, who set esthetic standards for the kind of musical and balletic entertainment enjoyed at Versailles by King Louis XIV. A genius for innovation, he paradoxically exerted a conservative influence on French music that lasted throughout the 18th century.

To honor Lully and his achievement, the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra is opening its season with a program titled "The Versailles Revolution." No gentle giant of music in his time, the Sun King's favorite has drawn from scholars such unflattering summaries of his character as this, from The Oxford Companion to Music: "Lully was unscrupulous in his greed and ambition and capable of ruthless plotting against his rivals."

Under the direction of Barthold Kuijken,  the IBO began the second concert in this week's series with Lully's Suite from Roland. It has strongly characterized dance movements and a crowning chaconne, typical Lully touches. In this performance, the orchestra's long phrases, seductively swelling and tapering, put across the music's emotional and rhythmic features well.

Some evidence of the eventual challenges to Lully's strictures on instrumental music comes up in Michel Blavet's Flute Concerto in A minor. Small-scale in ensemble layout (the flute is supported only by two violins and a continuo group), the work extends the Lully legacy of rigorous yet winning elegance mainly in its two second-movement gavottes.

But the outer movements, particularly the finale, have the assertiveness and bounce familiar in Antonio Vivaldi's concertos, including exciting flourishes as cadences approach. The Italian influence, with its broader conception of soloist-ensemble dialogue,  could not forever be kept at bay in either instrumental or vocal styles.

Kuijken, foremost among early-music flutists, played the solo part in the IBO performance. The soft timbre of the 17th-century instrument is a piquant check on the crispness of articulation the Allegro movements require. Kuijken displayed warmth of tone joined to nimbleness of phrasing, working in close coordination with the accompaniment, led by concertmaster Alison Edberg.

Lully's international influence was represented by one of the German composer Georg Muffat's "Florilegium" suites (No. 1 in D minor, "Nobilis Juventus").  This suite has character dances keyed to different European nationalities; especially enchanting was the Gigue pour les Anglois for strings only. A particularly fine coloristic touch came with Gavotte pour les Italiens as a pair of flutes joined in.

The program closed with a suite from a 1696 opera by Marin Marais, a bass-viol specialist crucial to the prominence of his instrument before the mainstream string family mutated permanently. He was also a composition student of Lully's. This splendid suite includes some dreamy lyricism (in the aptly titled Simphonie du sommeil and Air pour les songes) and catchy dance numbers, especially (to borrow the alliterative phrase Benjamin Britten came up with for a movement of his Simple Symphony), a "boisterous Bourree."

Another elaborated Chaconne concludes the suite in the approved Lullyan manner, with lots of textural changes and tempo shifts — all of them featly managed by the ensemble.