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Baroque Confections from Seicento Baroque Ensemble

A review by Betsy Schwarm

Photo credits: Britt Ripley

“The show must go on:” a time-worn mantra that doesn’t allow for global pandemics.  From the Berlin Philharmonic to jazz ensembles at brew pubs, live music experiences are on hold.  With concert cancellations came the regrets of audience members who had long had those concerts marked on their calendars.  Even more poignant are the sorrows of the performers themselves, for whom weeks of rehearsals suddenly came to naught.  Of course, one can always take lemons and make lemonade, and that’s exactly what the Seicento Baroque Ensemble has done – with true panache.

Amanda Balestrieri, artistic director of the ensemble, had long dreamed of offering a program of not only instrumental music and songs from the 17th century, in which Seicento specializes, but also including actual dancing on the stage.  After all, much of Baroque music draws upon dance rhythms for its structures:  even the almighty JS Bach felt that influence.  This was especially true of French music of the time, thanks to Louis XIV, who so loved dance that he himself would join the artists on the stage.  Balestrieri’s notion was to include actual dancing, so that audience members could see the music the way Louis would have seen it – though, one imagines, with less elaborate stage settings!

Seicento’s Airs and Graces:  Song and Dance in the French Baroque program had been set for Friday, March 13, and Sunday, March 15.  Then world-wide health concerns arose, together with myriad bans upon large gatherings.  What to do?  The performers themselves could come together, cautiously and without an audience.  An audio recording might be better than nothing, but what about the dance element?  The answer:  video recording, and arrangements were made with recording engineer Michael Quam.  Of course, one also needs a venue willing to welcome several dozen performers, a very small recording team – and a lone reviewer:  Boulder’s First United Methodist Church obliged.  

Amanda Balestrieri and Elena Mullins

Stage space was limited, and acoustics – rather dry, due in part to the lack of an audience – perhaps not entirely ideal.  Still, Balestrieri’s forces dealt heroically with the situation.  All ten pieces on the original program were performed for video, some given more than one take, less for the sake of musical perfection, which was already well in place, than for camera angles.  Balestrieri had her artists perform the pieces in different order than the program itself, so that, in accordance with ideas of ‘social distancing,’ those who weren’t needed for the full program could get back to their safe space at home.   Nonetheless, the variety and balance of the program came through, as did what Balestrieri described as the essence of French Baroque:  “over the top… but utterly elegant.”

For most would-be audience members, the familiar piece on the program would have been “Plaisir d’amour” by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini (1741 – 1816).  What?  You say you’d never heard the name?  Perhaps not, but the melody would almost certainly catch the ear, as, of all unlikely people, Elvis Presley borrowed it for his 1961 song “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.”   This reviewer has resolutely ignored Elvis, but the tune was still immediately recognizable.  Seicento’s own instrumental forces were joined by singers from Lafayette’s Escuela Bilingüe Pioneer and soprano Kendall Baldwin, a senior at Boulder’s Fairview High School.   Ms. Baldwin’s crystalline tone and smooth trills were exactly what Martini’s song required, giving it a freshness that allowed the performance to step beyond familiarity to become simply lovely.

The adult singers in other selections were no less impressive.  Seicento’s chorus proved equally able to offer tender pleas to Apollo as they were to forcefully evoke evil magicians.  As for soloists, Balestrieri herself sang songs by Lambert and Ballard, leaving the grander offerings (principally Charpentier and Lully) to her other soloists:  soprano Elena Mullins, tenor Alex King, and bass Allen Adair.  Each proved expert with the particular requirements of French Baroque vocal music, providing brightness without loss of subtlety, as well as allowing the dance-like lilt of underlying rhythms to float or skip, as required.  

Ah, yes, the dance element!  This was deftly provided by Mullins, not only singing but also dancing in suitable costume, gracefully interpreting instrumental preludes and interludes, with elegant steps and smooth turns perfectly suited to the music.  This was particularly showcased in a set of pieces from Les caractères de la dance by Jean-Féry Rebel (1666 – 1747).  Here, one found that rigaudons, gavottes, and bourrées not only sound different, they look different, too.  The way one points the toe, the pace at which one pirouettes, are as much a part of the music as how one floats a phrase, a fact that, if it had not been clear to listeners before was now brought home vividly.  Brava not only to Mullins, but also to Balestrieri for having determined that seeing Baroque dance was no less important than hearing it.

Elena Mullins, Soprano and Baroque Dancer

As is always the case at Seicento performances, the instrumental ensemble was perfectly prepared, despite restraints on last minute rehearsals and even some personnel changes, due to current events.  Balestrieri herself conducted the ensemble, comprised of pairs of violins, violas da gamba, and recorders, occasional tambourine for the more spirited dances, and the harpsichord of associate conductor Gerald Holbrook.  Particularly notable were places where instrumental phrases echoed something that moments earlier had been in the care of a singer.  In such situations, it’s ideal to slightly vary, if not the actual phrase itself, then at least the coloring and emphasis:  this Balestrieri and her ensemble managed beautifully, giving an extra level of variety to the music.  French Baroque music isn’t always about the singers:  at least as often, it’s about how instruments can bring an almost vocal subtlety to musical expression.

Surely, Balestrieri and her Seicento artists would have preferred to stick to their original performance plan.  However, the best laid plans of mice and men may require adaptability, and Seicento coped admirably.  Given that much of the delight of the original program was still in place, one can only hope the ensemble will try again to present it to the full public.  Once life returns to normal, please check with Seicento to see when and if you’ll have an opportunity to experience Airs and Graces:  Song and Dance in the French Baroque for yourself.

Elisa Wicks, Sarah Biber, Linda Lunbeck, Gerald Holbrook and Elena Mullins

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