Aux Champs-Elysées: La Ménéstrandise, Washington Early Music Festival, June 16, 2010

Though I didn’t manage to get to a Washington Early Music Festival concert this year until Wednesday night, a little over halfway through the month-long celebration (this year’s theme: music of France), the concert I attended at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church reminded me why I love this festival. The performers, a group called La Ménéstrandise, provided all the usual WEMF accoutrements: Repertoire handpicked from the dustier corners of history, performances with enthusiasm and care enough to make them shine anew, and a casual atmosphere befitting early summer, including info about the compositions coming from the performers rather than from program notes.

The concert, titled “Springtime in Paris,” presented a variety of music written and performed in the City of Lights in the early 1700s. La Ménéstrandise can handle variety, with David Brundage playing both oboe and recorder as necessary, Michael Holmes on recorder, Douglas Wolter packing multiple violas da gamba, Millie Martin handling the bass, and Vera Kochanowsky on harpsichord. This lineup provides the personnel necessary for your standard solo and duo wind sonatas, and La Ménéstrandise found some fun ones to perform.

Admittedly, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier’s Trio in B flat major (Op. 41, no. 3) and Jean Baptiste Loeillet de Gant’s Oboe sonata in E minor (Op. 5, no. 1) did not receive the most polished playing of the evening, particularly from Brundage and Holmes; some notes were ill-sounded, some off-beat. Yet the bubbly quality of the Boismortier made it the perfect springtime apertif, with a nicely flowing opening Allegro and an Affetuoso in which Brundage (on oboe) and Holmes spooned just the right amount of sentiment on the melody.

The playing improved for two works by Jacques Martin Hotteterre. In the Trio Sonata in G minor (Op. 3, no. 4), Brundage switched to recorder, in what he said was an attempt to emulate the composer, who was also a noted multi-instrumentalist in his time. (Brundage could have another career as a professional announcer; that guy’s smooth, deep voice must have its own in-throat resonance chamber to make it extra golden.) Holmes and Brundage combined to make some delightful noises, particularly in the Fugue, which whipped itself up into some real momentum. As Martin sat out this one, Wolter’s viola da gamba playing became more prominent, and he smoothly drove the counterpoint along, with fine support from Kochanowsky. Hotteterre’s concert-closing Trio sonata in D major featured Brundage back on oboe and everyone having a ton of fun, especially with the hard snaps in the rhythm of the otherwise buoyant Courante. I’d love to hear some more Hotteterre sometime, even if I do have to look really hard at his name in order to spell it properly.

Happily, in among the windy outbursts, the group also gave some solo time to what I call the Baroque rhythm section (aka basso continuo) of viola da gamba, bass, and harpsichord. Martin gave us the novelty of early Baroque solo bass pieces, by a composer who, she explained, no one knows much about (the name “Dubuisson” under which the pieces were published was probably a pseudonym). Just the sound of the solo bass doing virtuoso stuff was a treat, although Martin had to wrestle double-stopped chords from her instrument and occasionally had trouble pinning them down. Kochanowsky got to show off both her playing and her harpsichord in two pieces by Francois Couperin, one of which, “Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou les Maillotins,” required the use of both her instrument’s manuals (a pièce croisée). Kochanowsky got all kinds of zesty color from her harpsichord, while playing with an infectious rhythmic spring that had my toes a-tapping.

Wolter switched to a seven-string instrument for his solo spot, a Suite in D major by Marin Marais, whose music never fails to interest. Wolter gave a little disquisition on the unique features of the viola da gamba, which was fun. Then he and Coriolana Simon, who played viola da gamba with Kochanowsky to form the basso continuo, embarked on a marathon tuning session, which was not fun, although Wednesday’s oppressive humidity probably deserves primary blame. Once that was over, Wolter showed some really thrilling virtuosity. His instrument sounded terrific, especially with that seventh low string creating fat smears of bass sound for which Kochanowsky’s big chords made robust accompaniment. Wolter also has a bit of the swagger about him, and it served him well in the melodic outburst of a “Prelude” that opens the suite and the dazzlingly inventive extended “Rondeau” that closes it, as well as in the vigorous shorter dance pieces that made up most of the suite.

So almost everything was really fun, and in a chilled-out, personable way. (Another example of the latter attribute: After intermission, Brundage told the story of Handel’s appointment as Kappelmeister to George, Elector of Hanover, which Handel skipped out on by going to England, for no obvious reason other than the appointment was 400 years ago Wednesday. It was a nice touch, and wittily presented.) I wish I could go to all the WEMF concerts, but the only other one I’m actually going to attend is June 25. (Here’s the schedule for your planning purposes.) All the programs have been hand-selected for your pleasure, and you’ll probably discover something new that you like a lot, in a perfect atmosphere for trying things out.

TIC-TOC-CHOC ‘CAUSE THE PARTY DON’T STOP

When I was searching for info on the Couperin, I kept coming up with Ke$ha search results. As nauseating as I find her music, I have to admit that if there was a remix to “Tik Tok” featuring a “Tic-Toc-Choc” sample, I would be compelled to listen to it a lot. Enterprising producers: Make it happen! It’s like the “Grey Album” but with Baroque music!

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