The ASPECT Foundation for Music and Arts presented yet another enlightening concert experience at Columbia University’s Italian Academy on Thursday night. The Four Nations Ensemble, soprano Sherezade Panthaki, and art historian Mary Tavener “Tav” Holmes illustrated musically and visually the aesthetic of the Fête Galante, the early-18th-century art movement spearheaded by the painter Watteau and associated with the music of Jean-Marie Leclair and other composers.
The prospect of music by Leclair is what drew me to the concert. The great French violin virtuoso of his time (1697-1764) and a remarkable innovator on the instrument, he also composed brilliantly airy suites he called “Recreations.” This music counteracted the grand style of predecessors like Couperin, just as Watteau’s paintings of regular people enjoying simple pleasures in the outdoors contrasted with the heavy subject matter of the art he’d grown up with.
With expertise, humor, and slides, Holmes expounded on paintings that exemplified the “new world of vision” opened up by Watteau and his compatriots. Four Nations harpsichordist Andrew Appel talked about the four composers on the program, convincingly making the connection between the visual and musical arts. Then the Four Nations Ensemble illustrated that link with a glowing performance of Leclair’s “Second Musical Recreation.”
Scored for harpsichord, cello, violin, theorbo, and baroque flute, the piece opened in stately manner but proved to be a series of short pieces with a variety of feels – graceful dances and romps, a moonlight-slow movement, passages of deft counterpoint and pastoral ease. In one movement, light and intricate flute-and-violin harmonies suddenly gave way to a dark minor-key setting. Throughout, one could imagine the green grass, effulgent gardens, and calm waters of Watteau’s paintings with people in colorful dress dancing, lounging, or laughing amid them.
Cellist Jaap ter Linden switched to viola da gamba and soprano Sherezade Panthaki joined the musicians for L’Isle de Délos, written around 1710 by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, an older contemporary of Leclair’s. Singing these songs on themes of nature, Sherezade polished her honeyed tone to a shining clarity with evident joy, and gained, not surprisingly, the biggest applause of the evening.
Holmes pointed out that Fête Galante wasn’t about anything really happening. Still, there was drama, or at least an impression of narrative, in a ruminative section where individual instruments, notably Adam Cockerham’s superb theorbo, accompanied the singer.
But there was nothing resembling tragedy, and, in keeping with the Fête Galante style, no grandeur. Violinist Olivier Brault and flautist Kathie Stewart playfully and precisely executed extended parallel trills that the composer must have had just as much fun conceiving. And the main part of one lullaby-like movement rested lazily on one chord for its entire length.
Representing a backlash against the peaceful aimlessness of Fête Galante was a Trio for Flute, Violin and Cello by François Devienne, a composer of the French Revolution period. I suppose it does resonate with the neoclassical style of the painters Greuze and David, as Holmes and Appel suggested, but I didn’t find it of much interest; it certainly wouldn’t have driven me to storm the Bastille.
The Paris Quartet No. 5 by Telemann was more satisfying, reflecting the composer’s affinity for the French style and performed here with depth and finesse. Telemann is sometimes taken for granted as a competent but less-brilliant Vivaldi. But hearing this music in concert gave a sense that he was working with new and personal inspiration. The flowing perpetual motion of the second movement (“Gai”), the rich harmonies of the lovely third, and the brightly pastoral fifth all came through with just the right lightness of spirit.
I have a better comprehension now of what Bach really meant when he used the term “galant.” I also now understand the context of Leclair’s beautiful music, which for me had existed in something of a vacuum. The ASPECT Foundation’s events are designed to enlighten as well as entertain, and this one succeeded as well as April’s Art of Fugue concert did. I look forward to more. The upcoming season is detailed on ASPECT’s website.