What expectations come with a night of Baroque chamber music? You would most likely expect an expert performance, with nary a note out of tune. You might expect to learn a little bit more about the 18th century music world. Baroque music is characterized by its strict structure, its reliance on arpeggios and scales and dissonances that quickly resolve into major or minor chords. You would not expect to leave the concert both entertained and moved. And yet, Les Violons du Roy, the Québécois chamber orchestra that performed at Bailey Hall last Friday along with the Swiss-French flautist Emmanuel Pahud, received an enthusiastic standing ovation that lasted nearly two minutes for their sensitive and expressive performance.
The first half of the program featured the Prussian King Frederick II’s Flute Concerto No. 3 in C Major, with a second movement both grandiose and poignant. Franz Benda’s Sinfonia No. 1 in C Major and Johann Quantz’s Concerto for Flute in G Major were equally enjoyable, particularly the haunting Arioso e mesto of the Quantz piece. But it was the Symphony in B Minor and Flute Concerto in A Major by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach that truly merited the standing ovation. The compositions in and of themselves were lively and required the audience’s constant attention, rapidly shifting not only dynamics from piano to forte but also from the mysterious and sometimes sinister minor to the cheerful major.
The orchestra gave a glorious performance. It played in the Baroque style, with a brisk energy that was characteristic of Bach’s music. The group moved as one and was notably cohesive. Its staccato passages were immaculate, and every trill and half-note change in pitch were together. The orchestra proved versatile; the movements that called for a slightly more lugubrious tone were equally engaging as the raging allegro passages. The instrumentalists produced a muted sound with smooth notes that glided together. During these moments, the violas brought out a deeper, warmer tone. The dynamic between the celli and violins was just as remarkable. The dialogue held between the two was sometimes fierce, sometimes tender but consistently exquisite.
And, of course, there was Emmanuel Pahud. Those who play the flute or enjoy flute music most likely have heard of the superstar flautist who joined the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra as principal flautist at the age of 22. If you have heard a recording of a Baroque flute concerto or sonata, chances are Pahud has played it.
With these credentials, it seems almost redundant to say that his performance was spectacular. His technique was flawless, his fingers flying during the allegro runs. His dynamic contrasts were excellent, his piano passages a mere whisper and his forte passages full-bodied and robust. While some critics claim that his sound is thin and overly bright, the controlled vibrato and silvery quality of Pahud’s playing are perfect for the music of the Baroque period. His stage manner was unexpected but engaging; he paid rapt attention when the orchestra was playing and moved to the wonderful music in the making. Most of all, he was exceedingly charming, kissing the first violinist’s (Nicole Trotier) hand when he walked onstage, smiling at the audience and giving Labadie his fair share of credit during the applause. Of course, it is his flute playing and not his manners that truly matter — but suffice it to say there were many girls in the audience who wished they were in Trotier’s place.
Overall, everyone enjoyed the concert. The Sun was able to talk with one of the violinists, Jean-Louis Blouin, on his way to the group’s tour bus. He expressed how “wonderful” the experience was and commended Bailey Hall for its “great acoustics, [resonance] … and rare mix of clarity.” Blouin added that there was a “wonderful audience,” a testament to the enthusiastic response of the crowd. Not only the audience left feeling elated, but also the performers themselves, which is exactly as it should be. After all, music is both an intensely personal and communal art form, and the Violons du Roy did a wonderful job in creating a moving experience in both.