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With Good Grace

January 13, 2009

Trinity Chamber Concerts in Berkeley presents "the finest of Northern California's emerging musicians." Saturday night's concert was performed by four accomplished, thoroughly emerged performers who have recently come together in an ensemble somewhat ambiguously called Les grâces: Jennifer Paulino, soprano; Annette Bauer, recorders; Rebekah Ahrendt, viola da gamba; and Jonathan Rhodes Lee, harpsichord. Their program, titled "Channel Crossings," highlighted the stylistic effects of the widespread sharing of music across national boundaries in 17th- and 18th-century Europe.

Les grâces

John Dowland, the great and much-traveled English composer, was represented by his most famous song, "Flow My Tears." Lee played it first on the harpsichord, followed by Paulino singing it with the harpsichord/viol continuo. Bauer then played it in Jacob van Eyck's elaborate "Diminutions for recorder on Flow My Tears" from his work Der Fluyten Lust-Hof.

In another felicitous group arrangement, two songs were combined as a single piece: Michel Lambert's "Je ne connais que trop que j'aime" (I know only too well that I love) and an anonymous piece in the same key and spirit, "Qu'un rival vienne devant moi" (If a rival confronts me). Paulino gave fervid expression to the pains and jealousies of love. Bauer's recorder sound matched her beautifully, as did the sound of Ahrendt's solo viol connecting the two songs.

The program began with Matthew Locke's Suite in E Minor "for several friends," the friends in this case being the three instrumentalists. It was interesting to compare Locke's 17th-century dance suite with a suite for harpsichord written by Charles François Dieupart near the beginning of the 18th century. Lee gave it a spirited performance. Dieupart, a Frenchman who migrated to England and stayed to enjoy the lively music scene in London, published Six Suittes, each one of which consisted of seven distinctive French dances arranged in the same order. Locke's dances were less formally distinct from each other, and Dieupart's dances began to sound less like a piece for dancing and more like a piece for listening. For instance, the Locke sarabande is fast and danceable, and Dieupart's has become slower and more serious.

English composers, including the celebrated Henry Purcell, were much influenced by French music. Purcell's Tune in Imitation of the Cibell, based on a chorus by Lully and nicely played by Bauer, is testimony to this influence. On the other hand, the English practice of variations ("divisions") on a ground bass, described in Christopher Simpson's widely circulated Division-Violist and brilliantly used by Purcell, exerted a powerful influence on Marin Marais. Marais published Sujet diversité, 20 divisions on a ground given to him by a "foreigner." Ahrendt and Lee chose and arranged a group of 10, and played them splendidly.
At the Gallop
Paulino's singing of the opening recitative-style section of Purcell's extraordinary "Sweeter than roses" was elegant, despite a couple of glitches in phrasing and note values. The second section was taken at a tempo so fast as to be more muddy than giddy, at least in the lively acoustic of Trinity Chapel. But I liked the break she made when she got to the "dear, dear kiss," though she could have made it even more of an echo by using ornamental flourishes from the recitative. "Hark! the echoing Air" was joined to "Sweeter than roses" by the recorder, impersonating a trumpet. It too was taken at a breakneck speed, compromising tuning.

Paulino was at her expressive best in the singing of Purcell's great Plaint from The Fairy Queen, "O let me weep." Early in the program, she had made imaginative use of movement; but she went a bit too far with the Plaint, clinging to the wall as she began, faltering across the stage, and ending up reclining below the stage, out of sight of half the audience. She was down for the count all the way to the end. Still, her singing was ravishing, and Bauer provided an expressive recorder rendition of the violin part.

The large and influential French family of Philidor had English connections. As the transverse flute began to replace the recorder in France, Anne-Danican Philidor wrote a rare solo work for recorder, which was still a popular instrument in England. Bauer and the continuo team gave an excellent performance of his Sonata pour la Flute à bec, which had an interesting formal structure — an expressive slow introduction, two lively fugues, a French courante, and a movement specifying "Les notes égals et détachés." The latter instruction serves to support the commonly established use of rhythmic inequality in French Baroque performance practice: the exception that proves the rule.

Singing Michel Pignolet de Montéclair's cantata Ariane et Bachus, Paulino was mostly buried in the score. She is capable of better pacing of recitative, more contrast of affect from air to air, and more specific word coloring than she demonstrated in this performance. Having seen and heard her talents as an actress, I hope she will in future performances of this wonderful cantata be less score-bound and more attentive to the expressive potential of the language.

Anna Carol Dudley is a singer, teacher, UC Berkeley faculty emerita, San Francisco State University lecturer emerita, and director emerita of the San Francisco Early Music Society's Baroque Music Workshop.