April 30, 2004

Les talens Lyriques: heavy on scholarship but short on artistic innovation

Access to Chicago Presents' series of "early music" concerts is one of the most underappreciated privileges of attending the University—assuming, that is, that you appreciate early music. The series is at the forefront of current musical fashion and has added to the widespread resurgence of academic and popular interest in the music predating J.S. Bach. It will continue next year with prestigious, mostly European chamber music groups specializing in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Baroque music.

Of course, the assumption that you, the reader, appreciate early music is a large one. Bach is the Rubicon of classical music for a reason, even if this is obvious only in hindsight. He had little impact on mainstream European musical culture until Mendelssohn reintroduced him to the public in 1829. The importance of the legions of successful and immediately influential composers from the pre-Baroque periods faded quickly with the rediscovery of Bach. For a long time Bach has been the first great composer, whose music speaks to us three centuries later with as much ease as the art of great painters or the writings of great poets.

Until now, that is. If we are to believe the hype, early music is the hot, new "old thing." Presenting a series of "early music" concerts is rather like presenting a series of exhibits at a museum on the fodder of Renaissance painting. Not Botticelli and the "Ninja Turtles" (Michaelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael), but rather all the people that only the art historians can name. (Maybe they influenced Botticelli, but they don't have their paintings hanging in everyone's dorm rooms.) The funny thing about music is that by public consensus there is only fodder until we get to Bach. This is, of course, an exaggeration (especially in the realm of opera and sacred music), but nevertheless I must admit that on the program presented by the Talens Lyriques on Sunday afternoon—which included works by obscure names like Michel Lambert, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Jean-Marie Leclair, Michel Pignolet de Monteclair, and Alessandro Scarlatti—Handel was the only composer on the program with whom I was familiar.

What kind of audience does this kind of program attract? Well, Sunday afternoon, if you remember, was a startling, high-70s spring day—and there were more people out on the lawn near the Reg than there were in Mandel Hall. The geriatric crowd was, as usual, the bulk of the audience; the rest were a bunch of young types whom I can only assume must have been music scholars.

The guest soprano, the lovely Gaele le Roi, was almost worth the heat in the un-air-conditioned Mandel Hall. The emotion she invested in the three Cantatas and Lambert's Airs de cour was at least palpable, if not always audible—I found that her voice didn't quite make it out of her throat at times. The string section was so precise and polished that it gleamed like waxwork, but the absence of any violas (six violins, violoncello, contrabass) made for an all-too-clean, somewhat empty sound. However, Christophe Rousset's touch is superb; his harpsichord playing is the most delicate I've ever seen. I say "seen" and not "heard" because, of course, one can barely ever hear harpsichords, even with the efforts made to pair them with small ensembles and quieter period instruments.

Altogether, this music, performed in this way, belongs in a museum, or in a CD catalog at best. I would be less sure about this if I understood more clearly what the mission of these various ensembles was. There is a general consensus that music prior to Bach deserves to be heard, and I would never seek to deny this. But it seems as though every ensemble I've seen has approached this early music with the scholarly instinct to preserve it and perform it in exactly the same form as it would have been heard at the time—on harpsichords, in small ensembles, with conservative emotion, and so on. But if the desire is not merely to further scholarship, but also to communicate the beauty of this music to the public, I simply do not understand the resistance towards updating the instruments, the dynamic range, and the overall feel of the production. The renaissance of Shakespeare interpretation over the course of the last few decades has been due to just this sort of appropriation of the old material by newer artistic perspectives. The same has to occur in the performance of all classical music—and especially in early music—if it is ever to gain an audience outside of university performance halls.

If musicologists care to compare this Scarlatti Cantata to the other 600 he wrote and marvel at his stylistic conservatism, they are, I suppose, sanctioned to do so by the current laws of academic taste—which apparently condone such necrophilic activities. The public, however, deserves better. Bach's cantatas have been dramatized recently in unconventional stagings by Peter Sellers, and that represents a genuinely artistic—not scholarly—approach to the performance of Baroque music. I encourage the public to attend the Art Ensemble of Chicago's concert next week by which, I would wager, they will not be disappointed. Too bad I can't say the same about Les Talens Lyriques.