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Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra go for Baroque
Greater Victoria Youth
Yariv Aloni, Music Director
Victoria Baroque Players
Soile Stratkauskas, Artistic Director
Christi Meyers, Leader
Church of St. John the Divine
May 18, 2014
By James Young
This afternoon's concert was sometime in the making. Preparation began as long ago as January, when Kati Drebretzeni, one of today's most distinguished baroque violinists, visited Victoria to perform with the Victoria Baroque Players. While in Victoria, Debretzeni gave the Youth Orchestra a workshop on baroque performance practices. More recently, the Victoria Baroque Players have provided a series of workshops and rehearsals.
The concert was performed on modern instruments (who knew that Soile Stratkauskas even owns a silver flute?), but the Youth Orchestra had clearly absorbed a great deal of information about baroque performance practices. (There were some baroque bows scattered among the Youth Orchestra players. Even Aloni was sporting one.) Virtually no vibrato was employed and the accenting of the lines nicely brought out the rhythms of the many dance movements. The orchestra was arrayed in a non-standard (for modern orchestras) manner: the first violins were on the left of the stage, the second violins on the right. The violas were behind the first violins and the lower strings behind the second violins. The winds were at the back of the stage, as is now usual. No conductor was employed; Christi Meyers led from first violin.
The first item on the programme was Les Éléments by Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747). I gather from his preview, that my colleague Deryk Barker is unfamiliar with this composition and perhaps even unfamiliar with this composer. Rebel is, however, one of the most celebrated French composers of his time and Les Éléments is his most famous composition. [Yes, thank you James, no need to rub it in. Ed.] A child prodigy on the violin (appropriate enough given this performance by the Youth Orchestra), he was performing by the time he was eight. Subsequently, he became one of the Vingt-quatre violons du roi. He studied with the doyen of French composers, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and soon became a noted composer as well. Despite the fact that Lully was his composition teacher, Rebel incorporated many Italianate elements into his music. (Italian baroque music tends to be audacious and outré; French baroque is gracious and elegant.)
Les Éléments is one of Rebel's striking compositions, composed at the relatively advanced age of 71. It gets its name from the first movement, marked Le Cahos ("chaos"), a musical representation of the creation of the universe. This movement has been described as the boldest composition of the eighteenth century. It begins with a chord in which every note of the d minor scale sounds simultaneously: chaos, indeed, particularly by the standards of eighteenth century French music. Slowly order is given to the notes. The performance by the GVYO and the VBP was highly effective: ominous, unsettling and almost harrowing. The restoration of order came as a huge relief.
The subsequent movements of Les Éléments are a series of dance movements. Some highlights: the Chaconne was taken at a lively pace. The flutes were charming in the Rossignolo, which imitates the song of a nightingale. A tambourine was added to Tambourin I & II and the result was suitably rustic. (A tambourin recalls a countryside musician who simultaneously played dances on a small drum and a pipe.) Other dances were more courtly: the Sicilienne was longing and the Rondeau suitably amorous. The final movement, Caprice (Rondeau), was positively rollicking.
All in all, the two ensembles blended almost seamlessly, which is remarkable given the differences between them. Occasionally I found myself pining for the warmth and mellowness of baroque instruments, but the performance was highly successful.
The second piece on the programme requires no introduction: the second suite from Handel's Water Music (HWV349 and 350). Each movement was individually characterised. The Hornpipe, for example, was nicely exuberant. (Stratkauskas smiled all the way through this movement, in which the flute does not appear, obviously pleased with the results her young charges were achieving.) The first Menuet was gracious, and nicely contrasted with the bumptious Country Dances. The final Minuet captured Handel in his majestic mood.
All in all this was a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Occasionally, it must be admitted, there were a few ragged edges where it was apparent that we were not listening to a fully professional ensemble, but these did not detract from the enjoyment. This was a wonderful opportunity for the GVYO to learn about baroque music and a wonderful chance for the audience to hear something unfamiliar and an old favourite that bears repeated listening. I hope that we can look forward to more collaboration in the future between these two ensembles.