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The Sebastians and the Yale Voxtet
Photo credit: Grace Copeland

Concert Review (NYC): The Sebastians with the Yale Voxtet – ‘Voices of Versailles’

I wish more people knew how fun Baroque music can be. Classical music audiences seem to expect stillness and sobriety in the concert hall, at least until it’s time to applaud. That holds true even when the music itself reaches heights of passion, jollity, or sturm und drang. And as for pre-classical music – what in the Western tradition we call Early Music and the Baroque – it has associations of religious devotion (everything from Gregorian chants to Bach’s B minor Mass) or delicacy and quietude (e.g. the sound of the harpsichord or the lute).

The Sebastians and the Yale Voxtet: The Crossover Episode

On November 18 the instrumental group the Sebastians joined forces with the Yale Voxtet, a group of top-tier singers associated with Yale’s graduate programs, to convey some of the fun of the Baroque with an exceptionally well-performed set of music from the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Titled “Voices of Versailles,” the program consisted of music from in and around the court of Louis XIV – the sub-genre known as the French Baroque – and French-influenced music by Henry Purcell, the preeminent English composer of his time.

The five composers on the program are familiar to aficionados of the Baroque. But the two biggest works on the program – Purcell’s “Ye Tuneful Muses” and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “La Couronne de Fleurs” – are veritable amusement parks of fun. Brilliant compositions, they are also emblematic of the strain of zany abandon and the penchant for the parodic that were just as much a part of the musical world of that time as the religious and the intellectual.

Musical Herstory

The concert opened soberly, and instrumentally, with the Trio Sonata No. 1 in G minor by Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. Female baroque composers are a rarity, to put it mildly. Perhaps she was neglected in the past; I’ve heard Jacquet de la Guerre’s music performed more frequently in recent years.

A five-person subset of the Sebastians illustrated the composer’s expert mastery of the era’s common Trio Sonata form, a series of short movements of varied tempos and speeds. The instruments filled the room with fine clarity. Graceful melodic lines shifted neatly from the violins to the cello. I also noted the distinct filigrees of plucked sound from Charles Weaver’s theorbo, that giant double-necked lute that in a suboptimal acoustic space can easily get lost in the mix.

The Sebastians
Photo credit: Grace Copeland

Lully: The Great Dictator of the French Baroque

Jean-Baptiste Lully was the stern and jealous commander of the French royal court’s busy musical life. He was such a character that he lives on today in French culture (mocked, for example, in one of my favorite guilty-pleasure movies, Vera Belmont’s Marquise). The religious-themed “Regina coeli” from Lully’s Petits motets LWV 77 didn’t foreshadow the high spirits to come. But it did introduce three of the superb singers. Mezzo-sopranos Sandy Sharis and Veronica Roan and beautifully bell-toned soprano Juliet Papadapolous glowed as they delivered Lully’s butter-smooth harmonies, with much ecstatic extrapolation on the word “alleluya.”

Lully’s instrumental “Ouverture from Thésée” then prepared the way for the longer pieces. Woodwinds, viola, and bass viol (not today’s “acoustic bass” but the largest member of the viola da gamba family) joined the keyboard, theorbo, and violins. The fugue-like section sounded especially fine. And it was hard to figure where the piece flowed into the instrumental introduction to the Purcell, showing the influence of the French style on the English master. And here is where the fun really began.

Henry Purcell and His Muses

Purcell’s “Ye Tuneful Muses” sets an over-the-top anonymous Welcome Ode to King James II. It calls on pagan deities (Phoebus, the Muses) and refers to the king as Caesar. Two baritones call on the Muses to awaken from a “lethargy” that has “too long / Enfeebl’d all your nervous raptures of heroic song.” Then the full complement of eight singers, along with a melismatic tenor solo, hail the arrival of “sacred Caesar.”

This section included voices sliding drolly upward, as if tuning a string, with the exhortation to “Tune all your strings to celebrate / His so much wish’d return.”

The Sebastians and the Yale Voxtet
Photo credit: Grace Copeland

The Sebastians’ violins and woodwinds somehow were able to produce a fanfare, heralding an evocation of “the rattling of drums and the trumpet’s loud sounds,” that actually sounded like trumpets. Purcell fitted music to words subtly too, for example drawing out the word “still,” in its old meaning of “always” (“And may they still preserve his reign!”), and pulling back to soft-rock mode for “To music’s softer but yet kind / And pleasing melody.”

A stanza describing “the partner of his throne” brought forth a solo from Sharis. Her charismatic vocal personality emerged as more than the sum of its excellent parts, a smoky alto tone and exquisite phrasing.

After an instrumental in which the oboe players switched to recorders came a passage sung by two mezzos including the funniest wordplay, a drooping – lessening – repetition of the word “less” in “And ev’ry care grow less.”

The piece ends with a tenor soloist leading the ensemble in a stanza in which the singers describe giving their all, little as it may be, in praise of the king. The music here switches to a reverent style characteristic of a religious motet.

A Dance Contest and a Praise-athon

“Les Caractères de la Dance” by Jean-Féry Rebel is a head-spinning instrumental catalog of the popular dances of the period, each miniature example sliding into the next – Courante, Menuet, Bourrée, and so on. The performance featured marvelous ensemble work and some fiery violin playing toward the end.

Lully suppressed the career of fellow composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier. But one of the latter’s many surviving works is the 1685 chamber opera “La Couronne de Fleurs,” with a libretto Moliére had written for a different Charpentier project years before. Sharis set the tone in the lead role of Flore, the goddess of flowers, who challenges an assortment of shepherds to see who can sing the greatest tribute to Louis XIV upon the signing of the treaty ending France’s war with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Sharis was once again exceptionally compelling.

Each singer had a role in this amusing little opera, and all excelled. The solo and duet performances included those by sopranos Ellen Robertson and Juliet Papadopolous, tenor Michäel Hudetz, and basso Fredy Bonila as Pan. Some of the vocalists had better French pronunciation than others, but all were verbally clear and musically precise as they expressed the shepherds’ variously ridiculous efforts at measuring Louis favorably against forces of nature like floods, thunderstorms, and the heroic demigods of Greek myth.

The Yale Voxtet and the Sebastians
Photo credit: Grace Copeland

It’s true that to fully experience the amusement potential of “La Couronne de Fleurs” and “Ye Tuneful Muses” required following along with the text (included in the program). But that need be only a small distraction from appreciating this wonderful and wonderfully fun music, especially with the expert musicianship of an ensemble like The Sebastians and singers like the members of the Yale Voxtet.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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