Monday, May 2, 2016

Louis XIV and the Arts

Look at those dancer's legs!

Louis XIV of France (1638-1715) was one of the most important kings of his or any time. He ruled for 72 years, outliving his own son and grandson, to be succeeded by his great-grandson. 

Much of Louis’ reign was given over to military matters. Strife both internal and external occupied much of his time. But he had a strong interest in the arts, and gave them all the attention he could spare. He founded the Académie Royale de Danse and the Académie d'Opéra, and was himself a keen dancer. He was a patron of painters, sculptors, and architects. The theatre flourished during his reign, reaching new heights with Molière, Racine, and Corneille.

Jean-Baptiste Lully
The 17th century was also a pinnacle for music in France. Louis’ court employed Lully, Marais, and Couperin, which has to be one of the great genius nodes of history. Lully, in particular, was given all manner of rights and responsibilities over the music of the court. He also became the composer of incidental music for Molière’s plays, a collaboration that lasted years.

In other words, Louis wasn't just the richest man in the world in material terms -- he also swam in a sea of intellect and culture.

Now imagine you’re a down-on-your-luck aristocrat named Armand Jean de Vignerot du Plessis, Duke of Richelieu, and you'd like to impress such a king. Money? Bling? Believe me, you’ve got nothing Louis hasn’t lost behind the sofa cushions at Versailles. Beautiful women? Outrageous parties? Been there, done that. 

But what if you thought of commissioning something new – new music for a ravenous royal arts appetite?

And what if you knew that Louis was starting to go off his favorite, Lully? What if you had your eye on that guy who had been writing music for years for the king’s cousin Mlle de Guise?

Well, then, you might call Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Who was the Second Duke of Richelieu?

The famous Cardinal Richelieu was awarded a dukedom in 1629 by a grateful King Louis XIII, making him the first duc de Richelieu. As a priest, he died without sons, so at his death in 1642 the title fell to his sister’s 23-year-old grandson Armand.

Briefly glorious military career
Young Armand did not live up to his great-uncle’s reputation. As a naval officer he won some impressive battles, but never quite the war. Upon his return to civilian life, he appears to have set out to dismantle his family’s fortune. Gambling, mistresses, three wives and four children, some unfortunate political alliances, at least one property destroyed by fire – by the age of 35 he had started selling off piecemeal his titles, honors, lands, and a rather nice art collection with some notable Poussins, to cover his debts.

Chateau du Val de Ruel
By 1685 he was desperate to find his way back onto solid footing. When his king, Louis XIV, set out on a royal progress to view his subjects, Armand managed to get on the itinerary. He poured a fortune into the château on the route, the Château du Val de Ruel, refurbishing the building and especially the gardens and grounds. These were already famous for their fountains, orchards, triumphal arch, and general magnificence. The duke commissioned an opera to be performed in the new grotto he was having put in, and he planned a feast and a party that would be the talk of the neighborhood (which today is just outside of Paris, but which was nicely remote and bucolic at the time.) All of this, he hoped, would garner some royal favor, and stop his long, ignominious decline. 

Le Roi-Soleil
Alas! Never count on the promises of a king. At the very last minute Louis altered his route, and visited a different courtier’s estate instead. Armand was financially crushed. The chateau fell into ruin, and no longer exists today. 

The dynasty soldiered on, the 3rd and 5th dukes being especially memorable, but by the mid-20th century it, too, was gone. The people, the gardens, the grotto, the monarchy itself: all gone. The party that never happened, the feast that was never eaten, the opera that was never performed . . . But what about that opera?  Stay tuned for our next installment!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Concert Preview: The Voice of God and of Men

Early Trombones and Viols
3:00, Sunday, April 10, 2016
Old St. Mary's, OTR
123 E. 13th St.
Cincinnati OH, 45202

When this instrument first appeared in England in the 15th century, it came with Spanish and French musicians, so the English called it what they called it: a sackbut. [From the Middle French sacquer “to pull” and bouter “to push.” (Hence our word “button,” something you push.)] The sackbut was a pretty miraculous instrument: extremely loud, it was good for outdoor playing and for summoning crowds; and because of the sliding tubes it was able to match pitch perfectly. It was mostly saved for special occasions, like coronations, weddings, and church music. The Germans and Venetians especially loved it. But as the Baroque era wore on, the sackbut slipped out of the commonplace. By the 18th century it was just about gone from England. Throughout Europe, in fact, the “specialness” of the instrument hobbled composers who couldn’t always decide what to do with it, and so did nothing. The architectural evolution of the instrument, therefore, was pretty minor compared to many other instrument families.

After about 100 years of holding pattern, composers starting taking a second look. When the slide horn drifted back into England in the 19th century, it was part of a coalescing European musical tradition that looked to Italy as its leader, and that’s why the English started calling it by its Italian name, trombone (“big trumpet.”) Even then composers handled the trombone with kid gloves. Haydn only dabbled in trombone, Mozart used it to connote death or the supernatural, Beethoven put it in only three of his symphonies. Legend has it Beethoven considered the trombone to be the musical equivalent of the voice of God, to be used sparingly for greater impact.

Heaven knows what they would make of our careless overindulgence today, with 76 trombones leading the big parades, the swinging bones of Glenn Miller, the sullen menace of Darth Vader – we fling the trombone about as though it were as common as flute or guitar. 

It’s important to remember that once there was a mystique to the sliding horn, that it had an elusive cachet for composers and audiences alike. It was the special occasion instrument.

It will be a special occasion when Dark Horse Consort comes to Cincinnati. A trio of sackbuts will join a quartet of violas da gamba, an exquisite combination of dark tonalities nicely balanced by soprano Melissa Harvey. The music will come from Italian and Franco-Flemish composers of the late Renaissance. For the first time Catacoustic will perform at Old St. Mary’s in Over-the-Rhine, a space whose acoustics have been waiting for just this chance to show what they can do. 

Tickets $25, students $10, under 12 free. Available at or at 513-772-3242 or at the door.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Cincinnati Early Music Festival 2016 Wrap-up

What were the numbers?  

 Twenty-one events at 14 venues.  445 performers. Audience numbers: 2272.

Renaissance hair band?
 Who were the participating groups? 

 Bach Ensemble of St. Thomas. Suzanne Bona and Richard Goering duo. Cantantes Camarae. Cantigium. Catacoustic Consort. Cathedral Choir of St. Peter in Chains. Christ Church Cathedral Choir. Cincinnati Boychoir. Cincinnati Camerata. Cincinnati Chamber Opera. Cincinnati Recorder Consort. Chris Wilke. Collegium Cincinnati. Consort in the Egg. Edgecliff Vocal Ensemble. Harpers Robin. Knox Choir. James Meade. Miami Valley Recorder Consort. Rose Ensemble. Shakespeare Band. Vicars Choral. Walnut Hills Chamber Choir. Xavier University Concert Choir.

Jackie Stevens
This year’s most visible performer?

Soprano Jackie Stevens, hands down. She sang Dowland with the Shakespeare Band, Schütz with the Knox Choir, Padilla for the Albanese DMA lecture/recital, Pergolesi with Cincinnati Chamber Opera, Campion et al with Cantantes Camarae, and once more at Classical Revolution. All of these were beautiful, the Pergolesi most of all. English, German, Spanish, Italian . . . what, Jackie, no French? Slacker!

What were some memorable moments?

Harpers Robin played the gorgeous Por que Llorax Blanca Niña. We definitely need more Sephardic music in the Festival, and frankly in our everyday lives.

Pre-concert phone check
The Knox Choir sang a quite lovely setting of the Lord's Prayer by Schütz, with modulating harmonies, an ensemble that slowly expanded as the piece went on, and the repeated insertion of "Father" over and over within the prayer, creating a plaintive, pleading tone, right up to the end:  "Father! Amen"

The Rose Ensemble. Wow. Medieval harmonies, a rebec solo, the endless echoing of the vault of St Peter in Chains -- just, wow. And afterward, a hurdy-gurdy demonstration. A terrific event. I would love to have them back in town again.

Ring master Matthew Swanson
The early music sing-along takes the medal for most fun, in my book. We sang rounds, chants (we learned to read shaped notes for this!), madrigals, motets, and generally had a whale of a time. An informal poll showed that everyone there wanted to do it again, several times a year.

Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater was staged as refugee parable, and it was very moving. Lauren McAllister and Jackie Stevens sang beautifully, and there was hardly a dry eye in the house.

Krista Feeney and Catacoustic
Catacoustic Consort’s guest, violinist Krista Bennion Feeney. Another Wow. Twice during this Festival did an audience forget themselves and applaud when they weren’t “supposed” to, and once was during Krista’s Bach E Major Partita. Listeners were so thrilled they applauded between movements, for the love of God. The end was a textbook demonstration of a leaping ovation. Baroque violin. Is. The. Best.

Vikings Einar and Magnus
Classical Revolution. So many great moments, including Suzanne Bona, James Meade, the debut of our city’s first natural horn thanks to Nelson Velez, Viking music for pillaging thanks to Larry and Michael, and the psychodelic theorbos of Chris and Bill at midnight. A bodacious time was had by all.

Cincinnati Recorder Consort. We have watched this group ramp up for a couple of years now, and on Feb 23 it felt like they broke through. Renaissance (loved The Leaves Be Green) and Baroque (the Fasch made me hold on to my hat!) Recorder consort and mixed (they’ve got viols and harpsichordists lurking in there?) I think we need to keep our eyes on this group.

The CCM Early Music Lab Sampler/Organ Restoration Fundraiser at Prince of Peace Lutheran. The lute and harpsichord students got some serious accompanying and continuo-playing practice – important skills they rarely get to try. And the two viol performance cognate students, Stephen Goist and Wei-Shuan Yu, got to strut their stuff. For the Lab the collaborative event was a success on many levels, and the teachers are already talking about trying this more often. For the larger community it was at least 6 points on the Richter scale. The church was packed with former parishioners celebrating the building’s past and arts people curious about its future. Worship services have already resumed there as I write this, and bookings for future musical events are already getting penciled into the calendar. It was a re-birth, and thrilling to witness.

Cantigium. This year’s concert, which ended the Festival, was a terrifically good one. They were in great voice, in a perfect space (St. Boniface’s in Northside), and they had a delightful repertoire. In addition to the three centuries of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music they lovingly brought to life, they ended with three pieces of 20th-century music.
           Three times during this Festival we heard music that was not early: during Chris Wilke’s lute recital, at Classical Revolution (thanks again to Chris and his partner in crime Bill Willits,) and in the Cantiguim concert. In all cases it was 20th-century music that blended so nicely with its ancestors, never the standard Mozart-Mahler range of conventional classical music. I find the rapport between the very old and the very new interesting. Any explanations suggest themselves?

Does Early Music have a future in Cincinnati?

In 2017 the Festival will turn five years old. So far we have distinguished ourselves from the famous festivals
This visually impaired singer was
 reading music with her fingers!
in other cities, which bring in professional groups, and focused on local musicians. This strategy has created space for some remarkable groups to appear, unfold, and begin to come into their own. It has also provided the professionals among us with audiences who have come to appreciate music that was unfamiliar to them just a few years ago. Our numbers have grown every single year so far. I think the future sounds pretty bright.