‘The Season Bids Us’ at The Folger Consort

The Folger Consort — this splendid, and lapidary jewel in the crown of the Greater Washington area, and indeed, “all the world’s a stage” when it comes to the Folger — opened its Christmas-season performance, The Season Bids Us, to a rousing welcome from a packed house at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill.

'Christmas in New Spain' at Folger Shakespeare Library with the Folger Consort. Photo by Teresa Wood.
‘Christmas in New Spain’ at Folger Shakespeare Library with the Folger Consort. Photo by Teresa Wood.

This annual tour-de-force from the Folger Consort, world-renowned for its precision and passion in the genre of early music, delivered both of those and then some, augmented by other musicians — for a total of 10, plus a soprano, the magnificent Rosa Lamoreaux (a regular performer at Washington National Cathedral).

In The Season Bids Us, the audience’s cup runneth over, as the Consort treated everyone to a performance of “The Four Seasons,” four concertos by Giovanni Antonio Guido, with each of those musical seasons alternating with songs from the French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

The Frenchman, a contemporary of the Italian Guido, generally composed liturgical music — masses and motets — but, at the talented hands of the Folger Consort together with the lyrical voice of Ms. Lamoreaux,  Charpentier is instead represented by his charming “Noels” — scored for instruments (strings and recorders), to which traditional carol words have been added.

These carols are conveyed with a luminous balance of graceful French dance music and sophisticated harmonies, served up with the flavor of the folk song originals upon which Charpentier drew.

This match-up of period instruments is played to perfection and added to the fine-tuned vocalist, they scored a success last night for this Christmas season. It continues through December 23rd.

Since 1977, the Folger Consort is of course rightly judged world-class in its genre of early music — from the medieval and Renaissance periods through music of the Baroque Era (such as Guido and Charpentier). It is the ensemble-in-residence and one of the several offerings of its illustrious parent, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and usually performs at its intimate home, the Folger’s Elizabethan-styled theater, or in the airy vault of Washington National Cathedral.

But for this occasion, larger quarters than the Folger Theater were needed, but not so large as the Cathedral. Thus, the event is offered at the Church of the Reformation, directly across from the Folger. This setting is quite simply perfect, for the interior of the church (built in the 1930’s to fit in nicely to the standard set by its neighbors, the Supreme Court and the Folger building itself) is appropriately ecclesiastical — a rectangular hall with a straight-end chancel, reminiscent of the parish churches of medieval Scandinavia.

Of course, for the concert, it’s the music that’s the thing.  And this music is glorious.

Let’s begin with the Guido “Four Seasons.” First of all, everyone associates “The Four Seasons with Antonin Vivaldi. His music is almost musical wallpaper. Guido is, on the other hand, largely unknown and is only recently being rediscovered.

His life story is mostly filled with speculation about when and where. He was born, most scholars believe, around 1675/1680. (He died in 1729.) He was probably born in Genoa, Italy. We know for sure that he studied violin at a conservatory in Naples but in 1702 he moved to Paris. For the rest of his career, Guido became French, a violinist in the service of his patron, the Duke of Orleans. He played in the Duke’s private orchestra until at least 1726; eventually he became its leader.

At some point, Guido became known as a composer as well as a performer. In fact, he sat for a portrait by the French painter Antoine Watteau, and soon he was taking part in concerts at the home of Watteau’s patron — the financier Pierre Crozat, who around the same time also commissioned Watteau to paint  four oval paintings for Crozat’s Parisian dining room.

One of the four of these paintings — the only one that survives — is now in the collection of our National Gallery of Art. It’s L’Este,” or Summer.  Scholars believe that Guido composed the set of suites titled “The Four Seasons” for Crozet.

Which brings us back to the music!

As these four concertos — Le Printemps (Spring), L’Este (Summer), L’Automne (Autumn), and L’Hyver (Winter) — reveal, Guido spanned the worlds of French and Italian music of his day. He probably composed his “Four Seasons” around 1716-1717, about the same time Vivaldi was composing his own much more famous Quattro Stagioni (or “Four Seasons”). However, unlike Vivaldi, Guido’s work is composed in what’s called “the French style,” with lots of short movements, rather than Vivaldi’s Italian style — a three-movement design for the concerto. In Guido’s work, in fact, it’s an ensemble of three violins and bass, as opposed to the Italian scoring of two violins, viola, and bass. In other words, Guido gives us something not quite as virtuosic as the solo parts in Vivaldi’s version.

Well then, which version came first? As the Folger program points out, “we cannot answer with perfect clarity.” But some scholars believe that the idea of associating a poem with each season was Guido’s innovation, one borrowed by Vivaldi when he later added his sonnets to match each season.

In any event, the performance by the Folger Consort brings to the fore the musicians, and last night there were two solo performers whose artistry is quite simply astonishing to hear. No one should miss this one!

First, there’s the guest violinist, Julien Chauvin, a world-class violinist in period music, accustomed to performing with such Baroque ensembles as the Concerto Koln, Les Musciens du Louvre, and at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and the Deauville Easter Festival.  Chauvin also runs his own orchestra, Le Concert de la Loge Olympique, formed in 2007.

Chauvin’s impeccable artistry is announced as the concert begins, with “Le Printemps,” a Presto with a sudden eruption of sound, an immediate burst of virtuosic tempi and strings, flourishing in its musical counterpart to a welcome impossible to resist, the expectation of the fetching delight of the warmth of the Spring to come.

Later, with Guido’s “L’Este” (Summer), Chauvin was (only seemingly) effortless once again, in superb control of his instrument, indeed a dynamic command characteristic throughout the entire concert. Chauvin is the virtuoso’s virtuoso. L’Este itself is ever perky and upbeat, sprightly even, alternating its Spiritoso with a more languid Largo.

Of course, Chauvin’s solos were supported throughout by the other musicians, violinists, violist, cellists, recorder-ist, and harpsichordist, also at the top of their game, including the Folger Consort founder Robert Eisenstein.

At times all the strings are in perfect unison, kind of bubbling all together like a fine champagne pressed from many different grapes yet also aged together in the same cask, until uncorked (as last night) for a virtuosic toast to life.

Sometimes the stage almost shimmered with the incredible lightness of being — as the ten musicians were so in tune with the precision and the passion of the moment — for example, in the Vivace and the following Allegro of L’Hyver (Winter). At one point, the concerto becomes almost march-like, as the violins lead and then the cellos boldly follow. Then came the soaring splendor of the Prestissimo.  Vivaldi afficionados will especially like these musical moments!

Finally, let us consider the other half of the program, the “Noels” of Charpentier. What a Valentine to our Noel season!

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643 – 1704) was born in or near Paris. He may have had a Jesuitical education. In any event, he followed Guido’s path except in reverse, by going to study in Rome, arriving there in either 1666 or 1667 and remaining there for three years. When he returned to Paris, he incorporated features of the Italian Style into his own composition. Soon he came into the employ of one of the wealthiest — and most pious — women of that time, Marie de Lorraine. He became one of her musical “crewe” — one of the largest in France apart from the Royal Court itself! His duties were to be her composer in residence — and a singer as well. For her, he composed many oratorios, two Christmas pastorals, and for her chapel many motets. But it was her daughter-in-law, considerably more worldly, who encouraged him to compose more secular pieces, for the theater.

Folger Consort. Photo by Jeff Malet.
Folger Consort. Photo by Jeff Malet.

Most of his work remains unpublished  — but from the collection of this work sold to the Royal Library (now the Biblioteque Nationale) in 1727, we can see the full span of his work, including that for which he is likely best known today, his music written for Moliere and his company of actors.

His “Noels” are scored purely for instruments (strings and recorders). The Folger Consort has added traditional carol words to these melodies. As the concert ended, an encore brought a special touch of the season, with Lamoreaux exulting with the wonderful “Il est ne, le divin infant”  — “He is born, this divine child.” It was the perfect coda to a magnificent evening.

See this one, by all means. It earns its five stars the old-fashioned way, by sheer brilliance.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including the intermission.

The Season Bids Us plays through December 23, 2015 at Lutheran Church of the Reformation –  212 East Capitol Street, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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David Hoffman
David Hoffman is a freelance writer and consultant based in Washington, DC, where he specializes in politics but also reviews theater, film, visual arts, dance and music for several local publications. Politically he leans to the left-of-center "social democratic" impulse. He worked for 12 years as field coordinator and then associate director of public affairs for the large public sector union AFSCME. He helped to direct news media relations for Census 2000 while at the US Census Bureau from 1997 to 2001. He worked on Capitol Hill from 1976 to 1982 as press secretary and senior legislative assistant to then-Congressman (now US Senator) Edward Markey (D-MA). He later also worked in the presidential campaign of Howard Dean in 2003-2004 and the Senate campaign of Jim Webb in Virginia in 2006. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, David graduated from the University of Nebraska-Omaha with a BA in history and went on to earn graduate degrees -- an MA in history from Columbia University, where he was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow; a B. Phil in politics from Oxford University, where he was a William Morris Fellow; and completed most of the requirements for an Ed.D in higher education from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. For three years he taught history at Franconia College, in Franconia, N.H.