United States Rebel, Rameau: Chaos and Order: Dance Suites from the French Baroque, Juilliard415, Robert Mealy (conductor and violin), Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 21.10.2013 (SSM)
Rebel: Les elémens
Rameau: Suite from Hippolyte et Aricie
Suite from Naïs
Suite from Les Indes galantes
This performance by Juilliard415 was simply astonishing. Granted, there were a handful of alumni, faculty and guest artists included in the group of 30 or so players, but some 25 were students, 10 of whom are in their first year of study in the Historical Performance program. The new students would have had only a month or two at Juilliard, but there was not the slightest evidence that any of the players were less than professional. Rameau’s music is complex both harmonically and rhythmically, yet they never faltered. All played on original Baroque instruments or replicas: most of the wind and brass are less refined mechanically than modern instruments and demand more from the artist in producing their unique sounds. Robert Mealy, with his own playing to do, conducted with a light hand, yet the players were always totally in sync.
Anyone who has listened to Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, or to any music written “in the style of,” will understand that it not uncommon to hear music that is anachronistic: music that refers back and is out of sync with the times. Then there is another type of anachronism that can be comprehended only when future generations look back. Beethoven’s “Grosse Fugue” may not seem anachronistic to us in 2013, but we know that Beethoven’s audience heard this as music out of sync with its time. Beethoven I suspect, knew that he was writing music for the future.
It is less likely that Jean-Féry Rebel would have suspected that 200 years down the road the opening chords of his suite Les Elémens would be called “tone clusters” and would be incorporated into the music of Charles Ives and his disciples. It was clear that the audience at this concert was taken aback by the dissonance of the first movement: it comes as quite a shock, the last thing one would expect to hear at a concert of 18th-century music. Unfortunately the movements that followed were a more mundane mixture of dances and programmatic pieces representing the elements of air and fire. The movement called “L’Air: Ramage” was delightfully rendered by flutists David Ross and Melanie Williams.
To many Frenchmen, still under the shadow of the long-dead Lully, Rameau’s opera “Hippolyte et Aricie” was considered nothing but cacophony. It so divided the musical world that those who favored Lully were called “Lullistes” and those following Rameau were called “Ramistes.” It is hard to think of Rameau as iconoclastic or radical, but compared to his contemporaries, his music was nothing if not idiosyncratic. The noble and regal themes of gods and kings were challenged by Rameau’s rambunctious operas with themes as diverse as the tale of a frog longing to replace Juno as the wife of Jupiter (Platée); to a vaudevillian pageant of delegates from exotic countries backed by music that supposedly reflected the visitors’ own musical style (Les Indes Galantes). This was music that brought opera down to earth, opening it up to a diversity of themes never used before Rameau’s time.
Last year I said this about a similar Juilliard415 concert: “It is a joy to see how the students have grown in confidence and ability and how quickly the Historical Performance department, now in its fourth year, has gained a reputation as one of the finest early music schools in the world.” I would say the same this year but add that Juilliard415 has gained the reputation of being one of the finest early music orchestras in the world as well.