Louis XIV knew how to live. The Sun King, a devotee of music, did not have access to an iPod to play his favorite tunes, so he had the royal music librarian, Andre Danican Philidor, compile from the works of court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully several suites that mix movements from operas and more abstract works just as we would assemble playlists. Then, of course, Louis had an orchestra of royal musicians who essayed these suites every night — these were not considered grand events but rather “les petits Concerts.” It’s good to be the king.
All of that (except the first and last sentences) I learned on Friday at the second and final concert of this year’s Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival, once again masterminded by flutist and tireless repertoire-diver Jeffrey Cohan. It was Cohan who found the manuscript of Philidor’s work in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, as he engagingly described in pre-concert remarks. For Friday’s concert he brought together veterans of the DMV period-instrument scene to make us all feel like kings for an evening: violinist Risa Browder, violist Leslie Nero, and John Moran on the viola da gamba.
I declare it to have been cool simply on a historic level to hear six of the sixty-seven suites Philidor prepared for Louis le Grand: if you closed your eyes, perhaps you were no longer in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill but chillin’ at Versailles after a long day of worrrying about the War of Spanish Succession. However, as the preceding sentence may have implied, from a musical perspective these specific Lully selections had a certain serenity that may have soothed the royal nerves one suite at a time but that was less compelling over the span of a two-hour concert.
Still, Lully wrote a lot of characterful music, and the king could hardly have avoided picking some of it: an aggressive repetition of close notes to suggest a hunting party bearing down on its prey, strutting fanfares for “La Descente de Mars,” a ringing “Chaconne de Cadmus” to close out the evening. And the more sedate music had its own eloquence; I found myself getting more and more into Lully as the evening went on and I became accustomed to his style, seeing the endless variations within patterns that must have delighted the king.
The assembled musicians had some trouble entering and exiting at the appropriate spots, perhaps inevitable given the completely unfamiliar program; “Les Zephirs” had to be restarted after a quiet word from Browder on where exactly everyone was supposed to come in.
But when the musicians alinged, they showed an easy and winning familiarity with French Baroque style that no doubt comes with playing it for about a million hours. (They also managed to keep their instruments in tune throughout, astonishing considering the tropical heatwave conditions outside.) The single most dramatic moment of the concert featured Cohan duetting with Moran, Cohan springing and swaying about as he sustained a poignant melodic line, Moran closely watching him to make sure they landed in the same place. It came off beautifully.
Even with its flaws, this was the best kind of period performance: the one that allows you to imagine yourself in the period, to forget about the nonsense outside and explore a different world. Once again, Cohan’s festival provided an oasis in the midst of summer.
Other People’s Perspectives: Grace Jean.