Early Music Fest, Born On The Bayou, Turns Five

Mercury, conducted by Antoine Plante, opened the Houston Early Music Festival with Rameau’s ‘Les Indes galantes,’
minus singing and dancing, but with projected art. (Runaway Productions)
By William Albright

HOUSTON — Early music started to become a major player in the cultural life of America’s fourth-largest city in 1954 with the creation of the J. S. Bach Society, and other organizations devoted to music of the Baroque and Classical eras gradually followed suit.

The Houston Harpsichord Society was formed in 1968, coincidentally the same year the Bach Society went out of business (a new outfit with the same name came into being in 1982). Ars Lyrica Houston, specializing in sacred and secular music from Monteverdi through the 18th century, debuted in 1998, quickly followed by Mercury Baroque two years later. Five years ago, several like-minded organizations teamed up to launch a Houston Early Music Festival, and the nine-day, fifth annual celebration focused on Baroque and Renaissance vocal music in its infinite varieties.

Curiously, given the 2017 festival’s focus on vocal music, the first concert of the series brought to mind those Music Minus One sing-along and play-along recordings that provide piano or orchestral backup for the at-home vocalist or instrumentalist. On Feb. 11 in Wortham Theater Center’s 1,100-seat Cullen Theater, Mercury — Mercury Baroque shortened its name in 2012, when it started to venture into 19th- and even early 20th-century music — saluted Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les Indes galantes by doing away with singers and dancers and performing only its instrumental music. But that was the element of the work that received the most praise at its premiere in 1735. Contemporary critics found the vocal music disappointing, and the libretto by Louis Fuzelier was colorfully deemed “détestable.”

Mercury artistic director Antoine Plante came up with a fascinating solution to the absence of onstage support. Helga Kessler Aurisch, curator of European art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, scoured the world for images that, projected behind the musicians in the manner of an art history class, would illustrate each of the more than two dozen often-super-brief numbers in Rameau’s four-act tale of love in Peru, Persia, and North America and on a Turk’s island in the Indian Ocean. The visuals came from museum or university collections in Paris, Nice, Graz, Florence, London, Geneva, Washington, San Francisco, and Brooklyn as well as MFAH. Rameau’s era was well represented in the slide show, and some stellar painters (Watteau, Botticelli, Delacroix, Catlin) were featured. The time frame spanned the early 15th century to the 19th; the forms ranged from paintings and drawings to carpets, illuminated manuscripts, and even wallpaper; and every piece of eye candy was thematically and geographically apt.

Antoine Plante conducted ‘Les Indes galante.’ (Runaway Productions)

Plante’s exuberantly balletic conducting made up for the lack of dancing, and his 22-member period-instrument ensemble played with model style, precision, and finesse. When delicacy was called for, as in the Southern Winds episode in the Persian act or the Incas’ “Adoration of the Sun” air, the required transparency and refinement were there. And when the music got lively, as it did in the suite’s various tambourins and gavottes, everybody really dug into the music with rhythmic buoyancy and bite.

Since there are only about 45 minutes of instrumental music in Les Indes galantes, Plante (who made brief scene-setting remarks before the prologue and each of the work’s four sections) added some lagniappe to flesh out the program to nearly two hours. Inserted into the Turkish section, François Couperin’s La Sultane bewitchingly combines passion and erotic languor and briefly puts tuttis on hold so individual players can show their solo stuff. Because the North America of Rameau’s time was colonized by France and Spain, its portion of the suite was introduced by Marin Marais’s Les Folies d’Espagne. Here, a slow, seductive tune worthy of tango treatment is treated to delicious variations. And for an encore there was an unhurried, playful arrangement (by Plante?) of Mozart’s Rondo “alla Turca.”

Soprano Sherezade Panthaki sang in two cantatas.

The festival’s kickoff concert was preceded by a Feb. 10 master class in Baroque vocal performance. Held in the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music, it starred soprano Sherezade Panthaki as the “clinician.” With Christopher Holman supportively negotiating the often note-drenched scores on a Steinway concert grand, two sopranos, two mezzos, two tenors, and one countertenor from UH, Rice University, and the Houston Grand Opera Studio sang arias by Handel (Giulio Cesare, Partenope, Hercules) and Bach (St. John Passion), one aria from Rameau’s solo cantata Orphée, and Mozart’s concert aria “Vado, ma dove?”

Christoph Wolff Visiting Professor at the Harvard University Department of Music, Panthaki gave detailed pointers on rhythm (know when to be metrically strict and when to pull some taffy), coloratura (give runs expressive shape, practice them at low speed to improve their crispness at full tilt), trills (always begin on the top note), and the handling of text (make double consonants tell, lend expressive words plenty of weight for maximum dramatic impact), illustrating her advice with her clear, fleet soprano.

Panthaki reverted to her familiar performer’s role Feb. 12 in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts’ 500-seat Zilkha Hall with Ars Lyrica Houston’s “Scalable Heights” program. Founding artistic director Matthew Dirst conducted her in two solo cantatas: Scarlatti’s Su le sponde del Tebro and Bach’s Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51. In both, seconded by Nathaniel Mayfield on natural trumpet, she demonstrated how happily round tone, choirboy purity, and smooth yet defined flexibility can coexist. Dirst also led Bach’s D minor Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1052, from the keyboard and shepherded Brandi Berry and Kurt Johnson in Vivaldi’s La Follia sonata for two violins.

Profeti della Quinta performs Renaissance and early Baroque music. (Mel Et Lac)

The 2017 Houston Early Musical Festival will take on a jocular and ecumenical tone in its final two concerts. Interpreting the term “early” quite literally, the Piping Rock Singers — formed in 1995 by a group of Houston church choir musicians who enjoy performing works written between c. 900 and 1750 both a cappella and accompanied by period instruments — will reach back to the 17th and even 16th centuries for its “Madrigals, Motets and Merryment” program Feb. 17 in Christ the King Lutheran Church. Kevin Clarke directs the concert, whose focus will be on street songs from England and France: Richard Dering’s The City Cries, The Cries of London by Orlando Gibbons, and Clément Janequin’s Les Cris de Paris. A handful of Renaissance madrigals will lend some seriousness to the proceedings, but the provision of food and refreshments for audience members will make sure the performance is anything but a downer.

Presented by Houston Early Music — the newest name of the Houston Harpsichord Society — the festival’s Feb. 18 offering will feature the much-traveled Swiss-based male vocal quintet Profeti della Quinta (Prophets of the Perfect Fifth) and music that bridges the late Italian Renaissance and early Baroque periods. Founded in the Galilee region of Israel by Elam Rotem, the ensemble specializes in the music of the 16th and early 17th centuries.

Its Houston concert at Congregation Beth Israel will celebrate Italian-Jewish composer Salamone Rossi (1570–1630). He was a court violinist and composer for the Gonzaga dynasty, which ruled the northern Italian city of Rossi’s native Mantua from 1328 to 1708, and a pioneer of devotional music for the synagogue. The program will include a selection of his Italian madrigals, instrumental pieces, and Hebrew prayers, and a visit to YouTube will confirm the enduring appeal of his music. Listen to an example here.

Ticket for the remaining concerts are available here.

William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to the Los Angeles TimesChristian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications.