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Christmas With Charpentier

December 4, 2007

Avoiding the obvious, the California Bach Society offered a delightfully refreshing program of Christmas music Friday evening in St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco. Director-scholar Paul Flight chose a program largely devoted to the neglected Baroque master Marc-Antoine Charpentier, plus a few traditional French noëls and brief visits to the music of Hector Berlioz and Antoine Brumel. That, plus the excellence of performances, added up to one of the most delightful programs of Christmas music in my memory.
Flight's nativity program opened with the noël Laissez paître vos bêtes (Leave your animals grazing), followed by two of Charpentier's nativity motets: Quem vidistis, pastores?, H. 314 (Whom did you see, shepherds?), and Frigidae noctis umbra, H. 414 (The shadow of cold night). Between those we heard Charpentier's noël Or nous dites, Marie, H. 534 (Tell us now, Mary).

Following intermission came two traditional noëls, Une jeune pucelle (A young maiden) and Courons à la fête (Hurry to celebrate), before another Charpentier motet, Usquequo avertis, H. 416 (How long will you hide?). To round things off, Flight added two excerpts from Berlioz' oratorio L'Enfance du Christ, Op. 25: "L'Adieu des bergers à la Sainte Famille" (Shepherds' farewell to the Holy Family), and "O mon Âme" (O my soul). Flight then offered Brumel's zesty Noël, Noël, Noël, Noël! — a sort of 16th-century bell carol, whose entire text is devoted to repeating that one word.

Charpentier (1643-1704) is hardly a name known to the general public these days. Where he is known, it's likely limited to his big, bravura setting of the Te deum. Yet he was an important figure in 17th-century Paris, who wrote all sorts of music: 11 Masses and a great assortment of other sacred works, as well as operas, instrumental pieces, and incidental music for plays (notably for Molière's comedies). Oh yes, and he also worked as a choir director.
Italian Influences
Curiously, although Charpentier was French, his studies in Italy converted him to Italian forms and sounds. Hearing his music of the time, you might well think you were hearing the larger madrigals of Monteverdi. The unexpected shifts in harmony are there, the chromatics to depict darkness or pain, the interplay of various soloists and choral groups, the occasional bits of florid embellishment (though slight for a French Baroque composer), and the use of unobtrusive instrumental support.

Then, too, he'd use instrumental preludes, dance interludes, or marches as little tone poems scattered tactfully throughout the vocal sections to illustrate a mood. His work in opera and theater music likely accounts for that effectiveness. This also smacks of Monteverdi's influence.

If there's a distinguishing difference between them, it lies in Charpentier's interest in covering long text quickly. He rarely repeats a word or phrase, preferring to move along and just keep going. As a result, even a long text such as Frigidae noctis umbra whizzed by. (The poem contains 52 lines of text, enough to fill an entire cantata.) Usquequo avertis is even longer.

Charpentier was also uncommonly sensitive to the formal layout of a large text. Usquequo, for instance, begins with a soft Preludium of anguish for instruments, before the first full choral line that asks "How long will you hide your face, Lord?" About halfway through, the instrumentalists play an interlude marked "Nuit" (Night), on muted strings.

Then the whole of the work gradually begins to shift into bright, cheerful music, beginning with the line "The heavens have opened, a great light is risen." And for the motet's close, a brief, freely fugal vocal coda. So the entirety of the motet represents a smoothly gauged movement from darkness into brightness and joy.

It's all absorbing music, too, with nary a dull patch. Charpentier managed to be original and refreshing without slipping into any cliches of the period. It's a trait he shared with Englishman Henry Purcell, and at no lesser a level. Color them both "infectious."
Subtle Charms of Berlioz
Of course, the same is true of Berlioz, especially in his charming Christmas oratorio, a thing that lacks any hint of bombast. On the other hand, that might account for its neglect in concert halls. Audiences tend to expect the giant orchestrations and blazing bravado of the composer's symphonies and overtures. (That sort of thing you can hear on this week's San Francisco Symphony concerts.) Hence, conductors tend to avoid L'Enfance as an iffy box office draw. Money talks, but never sings.

L'Enfance hath its charms in plentitude, as well as astonishing beauty. Its a cappella "O mon Âme" is stunning, without seeming to make any effort. It possesses all the purity of expression you might expect from Mozart or Gluck. For all his Romantic rambunctiousness, Berlioz remained a classicist at heart.

Director Flight obviously took great pains to balance out his 23 singers and seven instrumentalists (two flutes, a string quartet, and a small organ as continuo). He observed historical niceties, but without going overboard. And bravo for that. One can be historically proper about style without necessarily being prissy about it.

Various members of the chorus had small solos to sing, of which by far the finest came from tenor Rob Calvert. The others gave it a good choral-singer's try, but with only so-so results. The chorus, however, was excellent when performing as a unit: perfect in ensemble, diction, and warmth of smooth timbre. That was much aided by the ideal acoustics in St. Mark's Church.

Naturally, there had to be an encore, so Flight repeated Charpentier's "Whom did you see, shepherds?" from part one of the evening.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.