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Grace Notes, but Not by Accident

September 27, 2009

San Francisco Early Music Society

French music, the stereotype goes, prizes clarity, elegance, balance — in a word, gracefulness. Of course, exceptions are easy to find, but last weekend’s concerts titled “Les grâces françoises: Graceful Music From France,” by the aptly named ensemble Les grâces, made a persuasive case that a consciously graceful performance style immaculately suits the polite, early-Baroque gems. The concert was one in the series presented by the San Francisco Early Music Society. Despite the young Bay Area quartet’s evident chops, its renditions of this 17th-century through mid-18th-century French repertoire radiated elegance and restraint without falling prey to overrefinement. I’ve heard some of this music performed with greater earthiness and more-obvious contrast in dynamics and tempo, but Les grâces’ relaxed yet never plodding approach seemed to snugly fit both the music and the weekend’s end-of-summer vibe.

This graceful style was most evident in soprano Jennifer Paulino’s singing. As the informative program notes explained, singers in mid-17th-century France favored a more-natural, easily understandable style, and accordingly Paulino avoided floridity, sticking to notated embellishments. But though the repertoire therefore afforded her few opportunities to unleash her coloratura, she compensated with a genially theatrical presentation. In Michel Lambert’s Je ne connais que trop que j’aime and elsewhere, Paulino provided an effective dramatic interpretation (complete with facial expressions that suited the text) and breathy interjections, without overdoing the drama.

She hammed it up delightfully in Nicolas Bernier’s ode to the addictive ambrosia of the arabica bean, Le Caffé, by flamboyantly pouring invisible coffee from a modern pot into a cup and displaying all manner of ecstasy as she sipped and quaffed and finally drained the cup. It’s, ah, stimulating to see a French-press caffeinated companion to programs boasting J.S. Bach’s much better known (and much better) Coffee Cantata. The 17th-century obsession with coffee so similar to our own, plus a vocal style that almost leaned closer to modern pop singing than to grand opera, made me wish that more young listeners had joined the few dozen mostly grizzled early-music enthusiasts at Sunday afternoon’s performance (the last of three) in San Francisco. They would also have appreciated the lesson taught by the program’s closer, Michel Pignolet de Montéclair’s dramatic cantata Ariane et Bachus, which prescribes strong drink as a cure for heartache. Paulino’s voice glowed throughout.

Each Player a StandoutAlthough the emerald-gowned singer naturally attracted the most attention, Les grâces itself is really an assemblage of equals, all masters of their instruments. All but one of the group members took turns talking to the audience between pieces, and all proved to be engaging. Rebekah Ahrendt provided a firm, rich sound in the viol’s lower registers, which was especially compelling in the darkest works on the program, selections from Marin Marais’ 1711 Troisième Livre de pièces de viole. On recorders, Annette Bauer’s fluid tone and surprising nuance perfectly suited the music.

Normally, I’m a fan of harpsichord continuo-playing that assumes a more equal role than simply providing background texture and chords. But at least, from where I was sitting in the acoustically resonant St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Jonathan Rhodes Lee’s harpsichord accompaniment sometimes threatened to overshadow Bauer’s recorder and even Ahrendt’s viol. In future performances there — and I hope many will be given — they might want to push the keyboard upstage a little. Fortunately, the instrument, given Lee’s sensitive playing, produced a mellow yet compelling sound, especially evident in his sparkling solo traversal of music from Jacques Duphly’s Troisième Livre de pièces de clavecin, which included the group’s namesake work.

Les grâces glided through the rest of the program, from a sonata by Anne Danican Philidor through one of François Couperin’s concerts from Les Goûts réunis (The styles reunited), in equally easygoing fashion. Personally, I admire the elegance of French Baroque music and am happy to encounter a program that ranges beyond the usual Italian and German repertoire, especially when purveyed by players who clearly understand and cherish it. Still, after a couple of hours of relentless politeness and sobriety, however effervescently essayed, I was ready for some meat to go with the meringue, and rejoiced at the group’s exuberant encore: an unbuttoned traversal of “The Echoing Air” from Henry Purcell’s semi-opera The Faerie Queen. I’m looking forward to additional graceful French sounds from this promising young ensemble, and also to hearing it explore more-varied emotional territory.

Brett Campbell writes about music for The Wall Street Journal, Willamette Week, Oregon Arts Watch, SFCV and many other publications.