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White Lights of the French Baroque: An Evening of Marc-Antoine Charpentier at Alice Tully Hall

11/06/2012 02:54 pm ET | Updated Jan 06, 2013

The title of Lincoln Center's "White Light Festival" comes from a quote by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt: "I could compare my music to white light, which contains all colors. Only a prism can divide the colors and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener." Pärt, known for his otherworldly and ethereal musical idiom, stands behind the concept of the festival as a kind of spiritual muse.

On October 19 the festival appropriately featured a performance of sacred music by the celebrated French early music ensemble, Les Arts Florissants, in Alice Tully Hall. Entitled, "Parables and Saints," it was an all-Charpentier program, comprising three sacred and dramatic motets: "Caecilia virgo et martyr," "Motet pour les trepasses a 8: Plainte des ames du purgatoire," and "Filius prodigus." These works were commissioned during the 1670s and '80s by the wealthy de Guise family, for whom Charpentier served as resident composer after returning to France from his studies with Carissimi in Rome.

The tone of the evening could best be characterized as lugubrious, focusing as the concert did upon suffering (both before and after death [the latter in purgatory]), torture, and martyrdom. The only moments of relief came in the joyful, celebratory choruses of St. Cecilia's spiritual triumph over evil and the father's forgiveness of his prodigal son. Charpentier was reputed to have been of a particularly melancholy disposition, and his patroness, the wealthy Mademoiselle de Guise, clearly knew that he would make the most of the solemn subject matter with which he had been entrusted. Like his master, Carissimi, Charpentier was exceptionally adept in "expressing the meaning of words through musical tones, and of moving the listener," as acknowledged by the Journal de Trevoux on the occasion of the motets' posthumous publication in 1709. The three works presented in this program epitomize Charpentier's ability to rend hearts asunder through his extraordinary range of musical affects; they are replete with sorrow and joy, ardent faith and exquisite piety.

Les Arts Florissants owes its name to an operatic divertissement by Charpentier, and, as such, lays claim to be the supreme interpreter of the composer's works. William Christie, the Buffalo-born musicologist, harpsichordist, and conductor who founded the ensemble in 1979, has dedicated much of his illustrious career to studying and reviving many neglected and forgotten works of the composer. Now a French citizen, Christie has been bestowed with the highest honors of his adopted homeland, including Commandeur dans L'Ordre de la Légion d'Honneur, Officier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the Georges Pompidou prize, the Liliane Bettencourt Choral Singing Prize, and membership in the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts. These credentials should insure that his interpretation of French music is beyond reproach, at least according to the Establishment.

Yet Christie's vision of Charpentier seems almost a caricature of the composer in its bloodless austerity, formulaic mannerism, and cool asceticism. One cannot help but think of the cliché about French rationality and enlightenment, which has no part whatsoever in the devout, passionate world of 17th century sacred music. Of course, the venue also contributed to this effect; it was a great pity the performance did not take place in the appropriate context of a church, which undoubtedly would have improved the quality of the concert, acoustically, musically, and emotionally.

There is no question that the members of Les Arts Florissants, including seventeen singers and eighteen instrumentalists, are musicians of the highest calibre. Their performance for the most part was exemplary, with only occasional flaws in intonation and ensemble (the latter most notably in the inegal passages), and an annoying ambiguity in vocal and instrumental lines alike regarding vibrato.

In spite of the visceral power of the music itself, ranging in emotion from profound anguish to celestial bliss, Christie's overbearingly arrogant presence and tyrannical direction rendered the performance soulless and passionless. At moments, one could scarcely believe that the singers were still able to breathe, so tense and relentless was Christie's conducting. The fast sections of the motets, intended as the redemptive apotheoses of the dramatic action, did not sound joyful, but merely frenzied, rushed, and busy. Inegal passages were missing the vital sense of swing. The exquisitely tenuous cadential suspensions of the slower sections completely lost their power, becoming neutralized by formulaically predictable appoggiatura trills, applied indiscriminately to every case without exception. Indeed, the ornamentation for the most part was stilted, mannered, unimaginative, and lacking in spontaneity.

The most disappointing aspect of the performance was that, despite valiant attempts of singers and instrumentalists to imbue each phrase with meaning, Christie retained a musicologist's stranglehold on the interpretation, giving the impression of a textbook approach rather than a living, breathing, organic involvement and interaction with the music. It is always dangerous when theory takes precedence over practice, particularly when in the service of a dubious "historical authenticity."

Yet, unexpectedly, Christie showed a spirit of generosity at the conclusion of the program, which had been performed without intermission. Acknowledging the audience's overwhelmingly enthusiastic response, he offered a sequence of no less than four encores. The first three were the final chorus from Charpentier's second opera, David et Jonathas (a clever way to preview Les Arts Florissants' upcoming performances of the work at BAM in the spring); the exquisite "Agnus Dei" from the Messe Assumpta est Maria, one of the composer's last works, written for La Sainte-Chapelle; and a rousing, de rigueur reprise (a true encore!) of the final ritornello from "Filius prodigus." One would have thought that the ritornello made the ultimate statement for the evening, but Christie returned onstage, prefacing the final, fourth encore with the ingratiating words: "We don't come to New York very often, and we have so much to share." It was the only piece of the entire evening not composed by Charpentier, but by his younger contemporary, Andre Campra: the sublimely transcendent opening movement of his Messe de Requiem.

In the end, the beauty of music so rarely heard and so profoundly uplifting carried the day. Despite the performance's flaws, one felt blessed and privileged to experience such a transformative "white light," and, recalling the words of Arvo Pärt, one was left with the daunting responsibility of being the prism through which all the colors of the rainbow would appear.